Eating in the Saint Arnold Brewing Company tour hall feels a bit like you stumbled into a half-hearted homage to the Sword and Crown restaurant from circa-1995 AstroWorld. The cavernous space is filled with long wooden tables and benches arranged for communal dining, anchored at either end by tap walls and displays of Saint Arnold-branded merchandise. Flanking the tables, a long row of picture windows look in on mash tuns and fermenters. Support columns wrapped in paneled wood complete the feel of a theme park reproduction Medieval Great Hall, and there’s a cool stillness to the place in spite of its echoing bounce. Perhaps that atmosphere serves as an unfortunate signal booster for the food, which, aside from a few notable exceptions, is uncannily reminiscent of every concession-stand meal you’ve ever had.
Take the Bishop’s Burger. Cooked to a sad medium taking a turn for the worst (your only other option is well done, the cashier will tell you, barely disguising a hint of regret), the half-pound patty’s aggressive griddling yields a nice crust but no flood of beefy juice for counterpoint. It comes standard with lettuce, onion and tomato, but offers no lubricating condiments. A swipe of Ale Wagger (brown ale) mustard borrowed from the pretzel you’ll want to order, and perhaps some punchy aioli swiped from a side-order of fries, helps return some fat and moisture to the burger in appropriate Texan fashion. Still, it’s hard to get past that beef.
The pretzel — a holdover from the pre-lunch-menu days of simple, beer-friendly bites — should be at the top of your list. It’s appropriately soft and chewy in measure, and dusted with just enough salt. You have to order two to get a side of Santo Queso, but the subtle edge of dark, earthy malt sweetness the brewery’s Santo (“Black Kölsch”) beer adds to the cheese dip makes that a worthwhile upsell. If you’re feeling frisky, dunk your overcooked burger in the cheese for the best version of that sandwich I had across several visits.
The Steak au Frites suffers from the same tendency toward medium as the burger, a sad fate for an otherwise lovely piece of beef. Bavette (flap steak) eats a lot like a thicker-cut skirt steak, and is excellent when given a good hard sear, as is the case here. The steak has a good crust and a broad, beefy flavor, and the “steak butter” mounted on top (I detected parsley) helps return a bit of lubrication. If only the kitchen opted for a center with a bit more blush. The frites are spot-on, well browned and crispy and properly salted right out of the fryer.
In addition to the regular menu, the kitchen features a rotating array of daily specials. Priced to come to an even $20 after tax, a special nets you a salad, an entrée and all the beer you care to drink. All the beer you care to drink until 2 p.m., that is. “It’s good, and it might have been $20 good a couple hours ago,” offered the cashier when I asked about a pasta special around 1:30 one afternoon. I took her advice. An earlier visit’s gyro special might have warranted its price had I been there in time to knock back a few, but missed that mark otherwise.
The sandwich itself is okay, though the meat might be overly crusty and the bread a bit too resilient. The zippy, dilled-up yogurt dressing is good but too sparing. Red onion slivers and tomato are nice, but a pickle would be nicer. Sides of saffron rice, orzo salad and dolmas each fall flat, offering mushy textures and bland, dull flavors.
Next to that disappointing, somewhat steeply priced special, the chopped brisket tacos seem like a steal. Two tacos come wrapped in prefab flour tortillas. Homemade tortillas would be a nice touch, but these are better examples than many. The beef stands up nicely against a surprisingly alluring pickled onion chipotle relish whose sweetness works in spite of itself. It would work better if it kept a bit more to the pickled side of the relish spectrum. A little more crunch and heat would be nice (maybe a few slivers of pickled jalapeño or fresh pico?), as would more cilantro. Still, the tacos fare better than expected, even if they wind up a touch greasy. Greasy food pairs well with beer, after all.
Speaking of pairings, it would be a nice touch if the menu would make some recommendations for how to do just that. Some items provide a bit of direction, if you’re paying attention. The Weedwacker mussels mouclade, for example, goes nicely with a pint of the same. Weedwacker debuted in 2011, the first in Saint Arnold’s “Moveable Yeast” run, which played around with the effects of pitching tried-and-true recipes with alternate yeast types. Its spicy, fruity notes play nicely against the meaty, slightly briny mussels, both in the milky, garlic-spiked broth and in a glass paired alongside. More of those excellent frites come piled on top, and a few slices of baguette rim the shallow bowl. A second dish would be nice, since you’re otherwise left to stack your empties on the rim in an odd game of ad-hoc bivalve Jenga.
A glass of Amber Ale would go nicely with its namesake brat if the dog were given a bit more color. It’s a nice sweet sausage, but suffers from too much braise and not enough sear. This leaves it lacking in texture and the all-important flavor of browning. Even the sharp mustard and caraway-popped pickled cabbage don’t redeem it, leaving it awash in sweet and tart flavors with no meaty oomph behind it. This should be a surefire drinking dish, but fizzles on execution.
The Reuben may seem overly salty, depending on your preferences. Alternating bites of corned beef lean me this way and that, aggressive on the front end but gentling under the flood of fatty juice. A bit more time in the steamer would benefit the meat, whose tug is just a hair too resilient. I want a little more tart out of the sweet/tart pickled cabbage, but the extra hit of caraway is nice, reflecting the seeds in the bread, a sort of Texas toast rye hybrid that doesn’t need its slathering of butter, especially if it’s not sufficiently toasted.
The grilled chicken sandwich is fine, if you really like grilled chicken sandwiches. Two thin-pounded breast pieces get a turn on the flat-top (a real grill, with its robust smoke and char, would be nice), and a bed of arugula helps highlight what smoky, charred flavor there is. Pallid tomato slices do nothing for the sandwich, but the soft, slightly sweet bun is a nice complement.
If you’re eyeing the chicken because you’re looking for something “lighter,” the Caesar might be your best bet. Romaine hearts cut into nicely bite-size pieces come properly dressed with a nice garlicky bite and lemony brightness, though the baguette croutons are just a bit past prime. Those can be avoided. My one real quibble: If there’s anchovy in there, I want more of it.
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Of course, chances are that a light salad isn’t what brings you to Saint Arnold in the first place. That would be the beer. Saint Arnold’s new facility is impressive, and if you geek out about those sorts of things, a tour is a nice way to spend an afternoon. You might even luck out and find something special behind the bar. One visit found the tap wall bereft of anything more special than the current Icon, but another featured Divine Reserve 10 on tap and the option to try Endeavour on cask. If you catch the right timing, visiting the brewery can be a great way to drink some otherwise rare Saint Arnold brews, and that’s appealing in and of itself. If you consider the lunch menu as more of a value adder for the tour and tasting room, as opposed to destination dining, its value becomes more apparent.
For now, I’d stick to simple things like pretzels and cheese, a basket of fries or a couple of tacos. Maybe split a Caesar or a bowl of mussels. If you get there on the front end of lunch, consider the special. Always, always end your meal with a Saint Arnold root beer float, featuring local Fat Cat Creamery Mexican Vanilla ice cream. Hopefully, the kitchen can get past its fear of red meat and turn out a burger worth ordering, and give that steak the red-blooded kick it needs. As it is, the food feels a bit reserved. If it stood up to the quality of the beer, lunch at Saint Arnold could be divine.
Saint Arnold Brewing Company
2000 Lyons Avenue, 713-686-9494, saintarnold.com/lunch/index.html. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (daily special until 2 p.m.); 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays (limited menu); closed Sundays.
Pretzels with Santo Queso $9
Hand-cut frites $6
Chopped brisket tacos $8
Classic Caesar salad $10
Amber Ale bratwurst $9
Ale Wagger Reuben $12
Grilled chicken sandwich $12
Bishop’s Burger $12 (add $.50 for cheese, $1 for bacon/mushrooms)
Bishop’s Burger combo (includes fries or salad and beer) $15
?Weedwacker mussels mouclade $15
Steak au Frites $16
Daily special $18.48
Saint Arnold root beer float $5