Carla Meyer

Dining review: Food, setting shine at Oak Park Brewing

The food at Sacramento’s Oak Park Brewing Co. meets all expectations for craft-beer companionship, and then some.

Chef Steve Yarbrough and crew deliver the fat, salt, heat and sugar that pair so well with beer, and at a higher level than one might expect in a restaurant that affords a view of large metal fermenters in the next room.

Oak Park Brewing Co. serves the burgers and fries mandatory for brewery restaurants but puts an unusual amount of thought into both. Oak Park’s everyday burger features the can’t-miss combination of Bella Bru brioche bun and Niman beef, brought together by Yarbrough’s tangy aioli. Oak Park always offers burger specials as well. We tried, and liked, a turkey burger dressed with cranberry cream cheese made with berries soaked in Oak Park’s Belgian Strong Ale.

Yarbrough also uses beer for the Irish fries, which are covered in a rabbit gravy. The rabbit, braised in the brewery’s Lily White beer for six hours, is unusually tender. The creamy-salty dish as a whole evokes turkey (that’s right – not chicken) á la king. It’s pure comfort food, if you can get past the rabbit part.

Nothing comforts more than grits, and they’re creamy and cheesy (American, cheddar and mozzarella go into the mix) in Oak Park’s shrimp and grits. These grits calm a Sriracha-accented red sauce that holds expertly cooked, slightly crunchy shrimp.

Oak Park targets beery vegetarians with its substantial huevos diablos starter. A decadent avocado crema tops deviled eggs enriched by spicy, earthy soyrizo. The plate holds five eggs plus arugula, fresh corn and delightful “Sweety Drop” Peruvian peppers.

An alcohol-centric establishment that shows a mastery of the hearty and the bold is not a rarity. Yarbrough’s also capable of subtlety, as evidenced in Oak Park’s memorable house salad, composed of organic greens, croutons, a bit of Parmesan and a bright, refreshing stone-fruit vinaigrette.

The delicacy of that simple salad, and what it implies about Yarbrough’s capacity for nuance, combines with that less-tangible element known as a place’s vibe, to lift Oak Park from a brewpub with good bar food into an exceptional place to eat overall. It’s a welcome part of an Oak Park revitalization effort that includes Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room, the Broadway Triangle mixed-used development and the popular GATHER: Oak Park monthly street festival.

Oak Park Brewing’s inviting vibe starts with well-considered design. Oak Park Brewing, which opened its doors at Broadway and 36th Street nine months ago, didn’t just stick a few tables next to the brewing equipment and assume people would think it cool to be at a brewery.

Oak Park’s founders Dave Estis, Bonnie Peterson and Tom and Shannon Karvonen stripped the 1925 building – originally a grocery store before holding other businesses – down to the brick, and exposed its rafters, along with leaded windows that had been hidden by previous renovations.

These bare-bones qualities recall the building’s Prohibition-era origins. Yet Oak Park distinguishes itself from all the other speakeasy-inspired places around town with its heavy use of copper and other elements associated with steampunk, the aesthetic drawn from 19th-century industrialism. The steampunk references, Tom Karvonen said, reflect the use of steam in the brewing process.

The Prohibition and steampunk visuals combine for a kind of timelessly rogue-ish quality that’s then softened by abundant wood and leather. The restaurant’s throwback, dark interior gives way to an open-air patio bathed in the glow of lights hanging amid canopied cloth.

The Oak Park Brewing crowd differs from the bro-dacious image one associates with beer culture. Ages range from about 6 to septuagenarians, though most patrons seem to be in their late 30s and 40s, and the male-female ratio runs about 60-40. The crowd also can be slightly scruffier than crowds at the midtown hot spots, and this scruffiness suits exposed brick better than visible upward mobility. People here, in general, look as if they have experienced hardships greater than missing the latest Pliny the Younger release.

They also share a lack of visible self-awareness. No one at Oak Park Brewing seems to be there because they think it’s the cool place, even though it’s cooler than most places. In this way, it brings to mind another stylish, relaxed neighborhood restaurant, South.

Oak Park’s beers pair well with its food. Beer-wise, I always go hoppy, and I liked the Joyland Imperial Red, which perked up the turkey burger. But that burger’s true mate was the Ropeswing Cream Ale. Though I found the ale flat on its own, it teased out the cranberry taste in the cream cheese.

During our three visits, servers and bartenders seemed knowledgeable about what beers might go best with food. Before visiting Oak Park Brewing, I had heard from friends that its service could be inattentive. I found this to be true, but only for the first 10 minutes of my first visit.

Heeding a “seat yourself” sign, I sat, then waited, as service staff passed my table, again and again, without acknowledging me. When my server finally arrived, she was exceptionally friendly and helpful, and things were smooth and efficient for the rest of my visits.

One was a weekday lunch visit, during which I consumed no beer but enjoyed the best food of my visits. That’s the hallmark of good brewery food – when you like it without a beer beside it.

Oak Park Brewing Co.

3514 Broadway, Sacramento, www.opbrewco.com, 916-660-2723

  • Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday; 11:30-midnight Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
  • Beverage options: House beers on tap plus guest beers from local breweries such as Track 7 and Berryessa Brewing Co. Two Towns and Schilling ciders on tap. Ancient Peaks wine.
  • Vegetarian friendly: Yes, and there’s always a vegetarian soup on the menu.
  • Gluten-free options: Yes, and some house beers are treated to reduce gluten.
  • Noise level: Moderate to loud
  • Ambiance: The well-designed dining room’s copper accents and mechanical-looking, metal-bottomed chairs evoke steampunk’s 19th-century industrial bent, without overdoing it. Things lighten up on the busy patio, to which hanging lights lend a nice glow. The feel throughout is relaxed and unpretentious.

Overall

It’s a cool neighborhood spot, free of the hype a similarly well-designed brewery/restaurant might engender if it were in midtown. The food hits the marks it needs to as a beer accompaniment, but the ingredients and execution take it above usual brewpub standards.

Food

The Irish fries, with rabbit (tastes like turkey) gravy, are a standout. The burger, made with Niman beef, is a solid, unflashy entry, and shrimp covered in Sriracha-accented red sauce offer a bracing counterpart to the creamy grits served with them. The spicy-sweet jerk pork ribs also go well with grits, though the cooked vegetables on the plate looked a little peaked.

Service 1/2

It took a while to get the server’s attention on our first visit, but things smoothed out after that.

Value

Prices are reasonable throughout, but the huevos diablos (containing five deviled eggs with soyrizo and arugula and “Sweety Drop” peppers) and the Irish fries (with rabbit gravy) officially are deals at $8.

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