Sacramento already has so many brewpubs that you could be forgiven for thinking we might not need one more, in the shape of Alaro Craft Brewery, which opened in June in the former location of Rubicon. A meal or two at the Spanish-inspired spot might change your mind.
Yes, I said Spanish — and while Spain’s cuisine might not be the first thing you think of in relation to beer, that influence is a good thing. Novice restaurateurs Ray and Annette Ballestero, working with head chef Jason Azevedo (a veteran of Grange and Hock Farm) and head brewer Chris Keeton (formerly of Rubicon), have created a brewery-restaurant that’s unlike any other in town. In fact, if it weren’t for the big fermenting tanks on display, a casual guest might not even realize it’s a brewpub at all.
The menu is flexible: sophisticated enough to intrigue those who’ve come for the food, but also rich enough in fried snacks and other nibbles to satisfy beer lovers who just want to watch a game. European soccer was playing over the bar on my visits, but the TVs aren’t overly intrusive, and the atmosphere is clean-lined and stylish.
The Iberian influence on the menu is a function of owner Ray Ballestero’s heritage: his surname means “crossbowman” (look for it in the restaurant logo), and he named the restaurant after an ancestral castle of the Ballesteros in Spain — though, he says, he hasn’t had a chance to visit. Ray Ballestero is a longtime and passionate home brewer; wife Annette Ballesteros has a restaurant background, having worked at the venerable River City Brewing Company. Both felt the salty, smoky flavors of Spanish food, not to mention the role of tapas as the famous original small plates, made it a good match with beer. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I think they might be right.
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Their backgrounds also marry well to make a restaurant that, despite the casual air, offers top-notch service and some dishes with considerable flair. I was impressed with the servers’ professionalism and warmth on every visit; they knew the menu and the long beer list cold, and could answer questions about the menu with authority.
It appears that the restaurant is committed not only to training its staff well, but also to treating them well: Alaro quietly adds a modest (2 percent) back-of-house service charge to the bill. Some diners may quibble with this practice, but I have no beef with supporting restaurant workers, whose labor is so often drastically undervalued.
Plus, that back-of-house staff is turning out some very good eats, both tapas-style and larger dishes. I’d happily eat the small plate of caramelized figs, chevre and grilled endive with saba every day. Its restrained sweetness highlighted haunting bitter notes, and the textures were similarly balanced, the pops of fig seeds tempered by tangy, creamy goat cheese.
Overall, the small plates I tried were very strong. At first, I was surprised by the price ($15) for a simple-sounding summer squash salad, but the pappardelle-wide ribbons of zucchini, plus corn, mint and a lush splodge of burrata in a complex tarragon viniaigrette, earned their keep. Surprisingly hearty, the salad would make a fine lunch on its own. Gazpacho (available with or without a scoop of ceviche) was also bright and fresh. Both of these dishes were on the fall menu when I visited for review meals and remained there at press time, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they transitioned off as summer produce wanes.
Smoked beets, on the other hand, were ideal for fall, and were another pleasant surprise, served over silky lebneh (strained yogurt similar to a soft cheese), with nutty walnut dukkah. The beets themselves looked a touch wizened, but tasted great, the smoke keeping their earthiness in check.
Clams and chorizo and gambas al aijillo (garlicky shrimp) were both good, with tender seafood and plenty of juices, but in both dishes the kitchen was a shade heavy-handed with the pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika). Mopping up the richly flavored sauce with bread toned down the flavor, but the distinctive notes of paprika are a definite theme in the cooking here.
Stuffed bright-red piquillo peppers were also slightly less successful, with a bit too much melty mahon cheese for my taste, but the caper-pistachio relish added salty tang. Eat those with a group — and maybe ask about the best beer pairings.
Speaking of beer, the offerings range widely but focus on the classics, with carefully sourced ingredients; you won’t find many outrageous ingredients here. Every beer is available in well-priced variety of pour sizes (10, 16 and 20 ounces). Styles include more than one IPA — the Castillo just took a gold medal at the Great American Brewing Festival — oatmeal stout, brown ale and the California common (also known as steam beer). Alaro is making the latter with all-local ingredients, including grain grown in Esparto and flour malted to order in Alameda. The pilsner has all Czech ingredients, including a rare Czech strain of yeast that took eight weeks to grow.
Such detail orientation carries across the restaurant: even the soda, an afterthought many places, is excellent (made with cane sugar, it comes from Maine Root). The classic Spanish ceramic plates, with their bright cobalt-blue glazed designs (love the happy fish motif), buck the trend of austere place settings to pleasant effect in the otherwise neutral décor.
If you don’t think of brewpubs for lunch, Alaro might change your mind with its good location at 20th and Capital and its lineup of sandwiches. I wasn’t crazy about the spicy chicken sandwich with gojuchang (Korean chili sauce), as it was messy and hard to pick up; with less dressing on its cabbage slaw and a sturdier roll it would be a winner. The accompanying side salad was unusually good; fries are another choice, and also available as an app with a punchy aioli. The stubby fries, however, also suffered from a heavy hand with paprika as well as salt; for fried-potato nibbles, I preferred the house-fried chips with an upscale onion dip.
Back to sandwiches, though: the PLT (smoked porchetta is the P) is a howling success as an upgrade on the venerable BLT, offering more protein and a satisfying porky chew, with arugula for bite and aromatic basil mayo. The hefty burger, too, slathered with cheddar fondue, is hard to quarrel with.
Mains are few, but steak frites is a solid basic, with a savory slab of well-seasoned meat. The salmon, with shatter-crisp skin and tender flesh, is triumphant, served (for now) on corn spiked with green chile. I thought I tasted a note of smoky paprika here too, but it was just a hint and very successful.
Fish tacos, on the small plates menu but big enough to be a modest meal, were pretty good, with batter-fried fish and a cabbage slaw, but not outstanding; the menu used to call them “best in town,” but has (wisely, I think) backed off that claim.
Desserts, for now, are limited to Strauss Dairy soft-serve ice cream in chocolate or vanilla, also available as a float with either root beer or the house oatmeal stout. I liked the idea of the latter, but felt the stout’s otherwise mild bitter notes turned a little mouth-twisting next to the sweet dairy.
Owner Ray Ballestero says that sous chef David Santana, who came over from Waterboy next door, may soon add baked goods to expand the dessert options, but a small kitchen limits the options. In other developments to watch out for, Alaro plans to start brunch service in the next few weeks.
The range of service, options and future plans at Alaro elevates it above the standard brewpub — as does a well-priced, wide-ranging wine list (with options not only from Spain but France, Portugal, Germany, all over California and even Uruguay) that means non-hopheads won’t feel left out. If you’ve been bypassing this new spot because you’re tired of the average brewpub, give it a whirl: you could be in for a nice surprise.
Alaro Craft Brewery
2004 Capitol Ave., 916-436-7711
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Beverage options: Excellent house-made beer and a surprisingly wide-ranging and thoughtful wine list, plus fair-trade sodas for the nonalcoholic set.
Vegetarian friendly: Relatively so; the small plates present vegetarians with several options. (Vegans may have a harder time.)
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Conversation was possible on our visits, though on the loud side when the dining room is full.
Ambiance: Sleek yet inviting, with colorful touches from traditional Spanish pottery, plus the buzz of glimpsing the small semi-open kitchen and the brewery tanks. TVs are present, but relatively unobtrusive. There’s a lovely patio on the wide sidewalk of Capitol Avenue.
It’s a brewery, but don’t just picture jockeying for space at a bar: the hospitality level is high and the Spanish-inflected food tastes like you’re at a well-conceived and well-run restaurant. Owners Ray and Annette Ballestero are aiming at a more sophisticated level of food and service here, and they succeed with this warm, unpretentious, and solid establishment.
Chef Jason Azevedo has devised a flexible, fun menu of Spanish classics and brewpub fare with stylish twists, including plenty of small plates (don’t miss the caramelized figs) and some winning sandwiches (the PLT) and entrees (the salmon). The kitchen might just want to ease up a touch on the paprika.
Professional and well-trained, with strong menu knowledge and a warm approach to hospitality that’s especially unusual at a brewpub.
Prices are reasonable, though a few feel like outliers on first look at the menu (such as $15 for a small plate of shrimp or squash salad); big sandwiches and entrees, however, top out at $20, and beers run as low as $4 for a 10-ounce pour, so you can eat and drink well here very reasonably.