It’s 7:15 p.m. on a Saturday and the restaurant inside Karbach Brewing Co. is packed to the rafters. Merry reverberations bounce off the exposed brick and polished concrete and, though it’s a bit cacophonous, it is an enjoyable din. The hostess announces an hour-and-a-half wait, unsurprising given the number of people elbowed up to the bar and posed at standing-height tables mid-room. Leave your name and number and wander the grounds or the biergarten (surprisingly pleasant at night even in August). Your server can walk your bar tab to the table, for a seamless experience that makes Karbach feel more like a “real restaurant” than a tacked on afterthought. A glass of one of the many draft-only and special release beers and a chair on the lawn in the shadow of the fermenters makes this among Houston’s best table-waiting experiences, almost over more quickly than I might have liked, at a good sight less than half of what had been advertised.
The hour-and-a-half wait might have been worth it for a bowl of crispy Weisse Versa rock shrimp, the first thing to grace our table. I’d never before thought of combining coriander and aioli, but from now on, I want all my fancy mayonnaise to be so improved. The dip strikes just the right balance, tasting fresh and punchy and (if this makes sense) delightfully pink. The shrimp is dense, meaty and sweet, its crispy coating bearing a pleasant though mild chew. Green tomato and jalapeño pickles on top serve as a slightly angular escabeche (think table-top pickled carrots and jalapeños at your local taqueria); sharp little jabs swing in courtesy of sliced green onions that seem superfluous until you actually get a bit. That charred lemon on the plate isn’t just pretty, it adds the faintest whiff of smoke and caramelization when squeezed over top. Do that, then drag the crispy/chewy shrimp through that fragrant aioli. It’s one of the nicest bites I’ve had in a while. It’s not served at dinner, but can be found on the lunch menu.
The Korean fried chicken sells itself, but then comes up just a little short, throwing a lot of punches at once without ever really landing any. For starters, there’s the gochujang. It’s not that it overpowers, per se, but it has a weirdly flattening effect. It comes on strong with salty fermented punch, a bit of creeping heat and a gentle sweetness, but plateaus quickly on the palate. If it were applied with a lighter touch, it might prove intriguing. The lightly fermented purple cabbage kimchi adds needed crunch, since the chicken wilts a bit, despite its blistery appearance. Enough bubbly outcropping exists that each bite retains a bit of shatter, even toward the end, but that chili coating weighs things down somewhat. You may find yourself wanting to like it, going back to give it another try, and never quite getting there.
If you’re at a brewery looking for a “lighter” option (by the way, who are you?), Karbach’s salad game is strong enough to convince you of your righteousness without leaving you regretful. If you’re like me, and the salads just sound too tasty to pass up, you can get one for a mere $2 extra in lieu of fries as a sandwich side.
The kale Caesar is suave and nuanced. Slightly under-ripe peaches add fruity tartness and a nice chew to the dense greens. The miso dressing is a genteel spin on Caesar, keeping the deeply savory punch but adding a surprisingly appealing smoothness. The baby kale is earthy and fresh, with just a hint of the bitterness you may associate with the green. It’s a nice counterpoint to the lush dressing. Salty punctuations of ricotta salata prick things up nicely. Even the slightly burned “seed clusters” are nice, though I have issue with the texture, a bit rough-hewn, more seed-shell than seed
Gita’s greens is deep and complex. Smoked potatoes, pickled egg, bacon and bleu cheese sounds like a shotgun blast, but the components are all deeply considered. The smoke is a nicely subtle component, suffusing the dense fingerlings and weaving throughout. Curried pickled eggs bring a nice creaminess nestled in among the tender spring mix and peppery, toothy watercress. If you’re not already a fan of pickled eggs, I can think of few more likely to convert you than this beautiful, pale-yellow-framed exemplar of the form. Bleu cheese adds elements of funk alongside the salty crunch of bacon. Each bite yields a different ratio of ingredients, somehow always in harmony despite the array of assertive ingredients. It’s a thoughtful salad, pointing to a thoughtful kitchen.
There are, of course, less successful dishes. A bowl of malted ricotta gnocchi sounds like a clever integration of the brewery’s offerings into the kitchen, but falters on execution. The dish rotates around seasonal inclusions, centered one evening on a sort of vegetable succotash of zucchini, tomatoes and corn. The vegetables were impeccable. Just cooked, still retaining a bit of vibrant crunch, and shot through with ribbons of musky fried sage, dollops of tangy goat cheese and a good bit of garlic, the dish would have shone as a simple vegetarian offering. Instead, it was marred by its star ingredient, a sad and pasty pile of formless dumplings slowly oozing together into a homogenous mass of failed ideas. Nail those gnocchi, and this would be a great dish. Heck, just leave the gnocchi out and it would be lighter, livelier, and all the better for it.
The Gulf shrimp and heirloom grits manages to keep its footing, but not without a bit of wobble. Those shrimp are plump and sweet, cooked to a dewy “perfection,” and still retaining a Gulf-hallmark whiff of iodine. The grits are admirably creamy, though their malty Sympathy for the Lager (one of Karbach’s year-round brews) broth lists just a shade too sweet. The house made chorizo sounds like a good idea, but ends up a distractingly chewy rubble, nearly marring those lovely grits. If the crispy garnish okra holds up, it’s lovely in spite of missing a pinch of salt right out of the fryer, but it might not hold up.
The grilled butcher’s cut isn’t perfect either, though its few sins are decidedly venial. The kitchen nails medium rare on both ends, veering toward rare in the middle. If the quality of the beef weren’t so high, some diners might balk. As is, it’s a broad and expansively beefy piece of meat, with just a hint of minerality. The black garlic compound butter on top lends additional richness and moisture, though neither is really needed. Underneath, a pile of those smoked potatoes echoes back the char of the grill. There’s a little dice of sautéed peppers and onions under that, a bridge to a sweet tangle of green beans. Cut down through the beef, following the flood of intense juices through a slab of smoky potato, sweep a bit of the almost-too-salty aromatics up against a few green beans, and this becomes one of the city’s finer composed steak plates.
The kitchen does well with beef in general, as seen in the house ground burger. It may come out a bit more medium than rare, but so flush with juicy, beefy essence that you’ll hardly mind. It’s an impeccably dressed burger, with its fat and luscious slice of tomato, tender and buttery leaves of lettuce, and thick ring of red onion. With its aromas of charred fat and grill smoke, it reads like the best possible iteration of a backyard cookout burger, in the best possible way.
Other standouts include the fish and chips — the deeply crunchy batter holds firm rather than unsheathing with each bite — and the English pea custard is a surprisingly svelte, evocative side. The herbal notes of thyme and rosemary in the crunchy coating of the fried chicken lend a homey air, and the unusually deft application of “truffled” mushroom gravy makes me reconsider that dubious term, but you’d do well to avoid the Grilled Shrimp Bahn Mi [sic]. The misspelling might well point to missteps, the sandwich overly dense and bready and dominated by sweet mint and cucumber, with slightly overcooked shrimp adding “rubbery” to the long list of unfortunate adjectives compelled into use. Banh mi are the province of specialists (I’d say the same about the pizzas here), and are best left in their more capable hands.
Skip dessert, too. It’s the one area where the kitchen seems to struggle most, with none of its ideas fully coalescing. Chocolate ancho cake holds none of the dusky heat it promises, and comes topped with an odd array of seeds (caraway and sesame among them) scattered on top of an unpleasantly sugary, granular frosting, their sole purpose seemingly to stick in your teeth. Though the malted milk ice cream alongside reads like a more buttery and rich vanilla, it’s not worth the price of admission. The jar of tiramisu is similarly ignorable, a mushy array of components that makes me long for the stodgy, overplayed original. The whole affair is overly sweet, its coffee component more cloying Kahlúa than espresso.
The one good thing about dessert is that it’s the one course where your waiter is likely to offer some pairing advice (a deep, slightly smoky stout full of chocolate covered espresso bean with just a whiff of licorice). That’s my one quibble with the approach to food and service at Karbach. They have a lovely, inviting room; they serve (mostly) lovely, inviting food. Clearly, attention to detail is a focus; even if it’s not always perfect, you always get the sense that they’re really trying to get things right. Beer pairings on the menu are details worth attending to, going a long way toward unifying the brewery and its food. The menu tells us how the kitchen makes use of the beer in the food, but fails to tell us how best to make use of the beer with the food.
Even without pairing suggestions, and even with a few menu missteps, Karbach feels like a restaurant hitting its stride. Like a place you want to go for the purpose of eating a meal. Like a place you’d drop in for a bite with friends on a whim. It feels like the kind of place you’d add to the regular rotation, dependable and interesting in equal measure, with a handful of dishes poised to become personal favorites. It doesn’t feel tacked on, like an afterthought or add-on for an already captive audience. Across several visits, I saw more than the occasional diner bypass the biergarten and tour line entirely; for all the tanks and hoses flanking one side of the restaurant behind plate glass, Karbach might as well have been any other neighborhood restaurant, and that is precisely why it succeeds as a brewery restaurant.
Karbach Brewing Co.
2032 Karbach, 713-680-2739; karbachbrewing.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Weisse Versa rock shrimp $12
Korean fried chicken $10
Grilled butcher’s cut $25
Shrimp and grits $21
Malted ricotta gnocchi $19
Fish and chips $12
Buttermilk fried chicken $12
House ground burger $12
Side Gita’s greens/kale Caesar $2
Banh mi $12
Chocolate ancho cake $8
Hellfighter tiramisu $8