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Suds and Duds 

Potrero Brewing Company

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
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"What a fiasco," I muttered as I peered through the rain-streaked windshield of Shooter's automobile. In the back seat were a Venezuelan and an Israeli -- "an international sampling," noted Shooter, "of restaurant-reviewing acumen." The four of us were looking for something to eat on a raw, chilly San Francisco evening, and we were not succeeding. The Korean cocktail lounge in the Richmond was undergoing renovations. The seafood place in Noe Valley was closed for a private party. The Eastern-eclectic joint in the Mission was dark and unlikely to open for business anytime soon. Three of the restaurants I've reviewed over the past couple of months have closed soon after my comments were published, a curious manifestation of the post-boom economy that I'm starting to take personally. On this evening we had the distinct feeling that we were running out of restaurants, that before long one of America's three great dining-out cities would dine out no more.

To stem our increasingly melodramatic ennui we headed for that time-honored healer, the nearest saloon. As it turns out, the Potrero Brewing Company isn't just a good place to come in out of the rain, but it also offers visceral evidence that San Francisco isn't a ghost town after all. On a stormy Saturday night its two rambling, modern-industrial levels of western Potrero real estate were jammed with that apparently dwindling breed, the computer-literate yuppie. Two well-stocked bars, two tobacco-friendly patios, four regulation-size pool tables, and seven satellite-enhanced televisions provided bread and circuses to the quaffing hordes. When the noshing and the drinking and the pre- and postprandial interactions reached the boiling point, the noise level was potent. We waded through the crowd and settled in at a candlelit booth more or less distinct from the predominant hubbub.

What sets Potrero apart from most brewpubs is the surprisingly high quality of the food -- well, most of it, anyway. The best options are the kinds of food that go best with beer (snacks and appetizers, primarily), but Potrero offers at least a couple of splendid entrees as well. The best dish on the menu is an unexpected twist on a tired old standby, the quesadilla. Here the crisp flour tortillas come layered with a seemingly irreconcilable assortment of ingredients -- baked garlic, peppery cheese, and roasted pear -- but the resulting sweet, smoky, creamy, spicy, crunchy nibble is complex and delicious. The red lettuces salad takes an array of bittersweet greens (reds?) and dresses them up with sharp picholine olives, Spain's dreamy manchego cheese, snappy glazed almonds, and a bracing splash of sherry vinaigrette. It's like a refreshing aperitif in vegetable form. The brewers' pizza is a disappointment, though. Its crust is concocted out of beer mash (an amusing gimmick), but this mozzarella-tomato pie may be the blandest pizza in the City and County of San Francisco. Happily, the rock shrimp tacos -- three soft tortillas stuffed with tomatilla salsa, lime-chile sour cream, peppery coleslaw, and plenty of plump, sweet prawns -- are around to pick up the slack.

The grilled salmon entree stands out among the large plates. Like the quesadilla it combines ingredients that appear incompatible: sweet potatoes, garlic, spinach, grapefruit, vinegar, and coriander, as well as the fish. But the flavor combinations are as remarkable as they are unexpected. Introducing a forkful of mashed yam, garlicky spinach, bittersweet grapefruit, and juicy salmon into your mouth is its own blissful reward. Not as astonishing but still plenty comforting is the macaroni and cheese, a decidedly high-rent version of the classic. In this adaptation, al dente penne baked until crunchy joins peas, mushrooms, smoky bits of Black Forest ham, a lusty cheese sauce splashed with beer, and a crisp focaccia gratin. The roasted chicken, however, is as forgettable as the pizza. Despite the black beans, tortillas, and avocado salsa that share its platter, the whole thing is as spice-free as a Presbyterian picnic. That said, the Niman Ranch Potrero Burger is moist and satisfying, even if mine was cooked well beyond the medium-rare I'd specified.

The desserts are uniformly unimpressive. The chocolate pot de crème tastes like a particularly dense bowl of Jell-O pudding -- right down to the absence of chocolate flavor. The cheesecake is saccharine, gummy, and a far cry from the silken ivory we expected. Potrero's homemade root beer isn't jazzy enough to make its PBC Float worth ordering, even if the vanilla bean ice cream is from Mitchell's. The best sweet course is the house crème brûlée, and even it lacks that velvety intensity that usually makes crème brûlée so good.

It's also too bad that most of the house-brewed beers are as white-bread as the establishment's high-fiving clientele. About a dozen brews are available on any given day (by the pint, the 9-ounce glass, and the five-sample set), and we tried six of them. The amber is bland, syrupy, and unmemorable; the wheat is so innocuous that it leaves the same pleasant, somnolent feeling as a soft handful of eiderdown; the Equinox ale is utterly tame despite its undertone of spice; and even the creamy-looking porter tastes weak. But two beers stand out: The India Pale Ale is a refreshing hint of summertime with a pleasantly citrusy character, and the copper-colored E.S.B. has plenty of body and a hoppy, floral afterbite.

If you don't like beer (or Potrero's beer, anyway), the place has two fully stocked bars and a reasonably priced 33-item wine list with 16 vintages available by the glass. If you do like the house brews and you drop by on a Tuesday, you can slake your thirst for just $2 per round. More robust appetites can order a keg to go -- $95 for 15.5 gallons, $45 for five gallons, or $15 for a liter. You could get one keg filled with the IPA and another with the E.S.B. There are worse ways to wait out the rainy season.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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