First Look at The Hay Merchant

It's Wednesday afternoon and rainy, and I must be one of the only people who doesn't know where The Hay Merchant is, because after looping around several times at the intersection where it's supposed to be, I don't see a sign anywhere. And I don't see any parking either, just a couple of police cars parked at the corner, as if to say, "I dare you to park somewhere you shouldn't."

I knew that The Hay Merchant had opened at 3 p.m. that day (it was 5 p.m. when I got there) and I finally spotted a few people sitting on a covered patio on the side of the building bearing the sign "Chances Bar," so I got down to the not-so-fun business of finding parking in the rain, which I did, three blocks away on a small side street.

When I walked through the front doors, I was greeted by a thriving, packed scene, with barely an open seat in the house and a packed bar with standing-room only.

Bobby Heugel, wearing one of his cool new "Westheimer" silk-screened shirts, was immediately on hand with a wide smile of greeting, confirming the lack of signage. "We'll put up a sign soon," Heugel reassured me. "For now, until our second parking lot opens on the other side of the building, it's probably better if we don't have a sign just yet."

And I agree. Bobby Heugel, of Anvil Bar & Refuge fame, and his long-awaited The Hay Merchant temple to craft beer, are a huge draw for Montrosians and beer lovers, and if opening day is any indication, it's definitely going to be one of those places that will draw crowds.

First of all, there's the beer list. Now, I'm admittedly not much of a beer drinker, but if I were, I'd be completely gaga over the long list of 78 beers (I counted) available on the menu -- grouped in the following categories to help make the selection easier: Sociable and Refreshing, Hop-a-licious, Sweet and Sticky, Sour and Fruity, Belgian Inspiration, Malty-Toasty-or-Nutty, Dark and Flavorful, Not for the Faint of Heart, and Kevin's Cask Selections.

In the bottom corner, as a concession to non-beer drinkers, no doubt, was a section labeled "Yes, We Have Wine Too," to which I would have added "but not a lot," since there were only two wines listed.

The Hay Merchant is definitely all about the beer, and to that end, the food menu was created with beer-drinking in mind. Executive Chef Antoine Ware, formerly at Catalan, has developed a comfort-food-driven, eat-while-you-drink or eat-after-you-drink menu with cool items like the fried pig's ears and oxtails in gravy, along with comfort food selections that include the house burger, house-made hot dog, and fried chicken liver and waffles.

I just wanted the fried chicken liver waffles, but we wanted to give the menu a spin, so we ordered a whole bunch of things to try.

First up were the crispy, french-fry-like fried pig ear strips. Salty and a bit sweet, with a hint of cartilaginous texture of the pig ears in each bite, these were so popular that by 6 p.m. the kitchen had sold out of them. And I could see why. Put a bowl of those in front of anyone and it would be impossible not to nibble away, like I did. They were definitely hard to stop eating.

Our knowledgeable, smiling server recommended the "beef chips," basically rectangular pieces of short ribs that could be eaten by hand, as his favorite. They were one of mine too, reminding me of Korean-style barbecue short ribs minus the kimchi.

Served on on a bed of lettuce, with some pickled red onions and cucumbers, they had a small piece of bone attached -- all the better to pick up with your hands -- and were savory and sweet at the same time. "They were inspired by a Vietnamese recipe," said Chef Chris Shepherd, who was on hand to help Ware in the kitchen. Indeed, the marinade involved fish sauce and sugar, but I felt like the flavors were decidedly Korean, and could picture washing down a plate of them with some beer and kimchi.

The dish I wanted to try the most ended up being my favorite. Chicken-fried liver and waffles, with a sweet honey syrup, were just what the doctor ordered with my Belgian dubbel. The batter was light, the liver flavor hearty, the waffle, fluffy yet crisp. It came out tasting exactly as rich and decadent as I'd envisioned, and had I not been bent on trying mores dishes, I could have happily reveled in this single dish alone.

The humongous house-made hot dog was another hit, but by the time it came out, I really couldn't eat more. Ditto for the queso with blood sausage, a heavy dish that I barely took a bite of, and the sweetbread po boy, which was overwhelmed by a too-thick bun that dwarfed the ingredients inside. They were just both too heavy for me to eat in addition to the other items we'd ordered.

"How was it?" Heugel asked me at the end of the meal. Flavor-wise, the dishes were tasty and hearty, but the overall effect of several dishes in one sitting ended up being a just too heavy for me, and I told him so. "I would have loved something light, like a salad or crisp vegetable, to balance out the heaviness and savoriness of the fried foods," I told him.

"We were really focused on creating a menu that went with beer, and we were thinking of it as a place for beer first, with food if you wanted it," he told me. "But maybe we can explore doing at least a couple of light dishes."

I certainly hope so. While Hay Merchant's target demographic is probably tipped towards males, there's somewhat of a gender bias in the way that the current food menu reads because it lacks lighter fare. It's kind of like how the movie Old School or The Hangover was written with male humor in mind -- it felt like the menu was created for the hearty male appetite.

But then, I'm looking at it from female-who-doesn't-really-drink-beer perspective. There's bound to be people who don't see it that way. In fact, Houston Press food critic Katharine Shilcutt tweeted this about the menu: "Oh my. The @HayMerchant menu has my heart aflutter...Oxtail and mushroom gravy over biscuits with poached eggs? I die."

So whether you go there for the beer, the food menu, or to hang out with friends, The Hay Merchant is supposed to be a place for people to gather and enjoy beer -- a social gathering hub in the 'trose -- and it succeeds on all those fronts.

And with that, I'll leave you with one of the more memorable first impressions someone posted about The Hay Merchant this weekend: "OMG it's raining straight men at Hay Merchant." What was yours? Comments welcome.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham