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Escape typical bar food at newcomer Fire and Hops

Josh Johns, co-owner of Fire and Hops, serves craft beers at the gastropub on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Josh Johns, co-owner of Fire and Hops, serves craft beers at the gastropub on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Fire and Hops, a new addition to Santa Fe’s restaurant scene, is off to a jumpin’ start.

Three friends and I arrived at 6:30 p.m. on a week night to learn that we faced a half-hour wait for a table. (They don’t take reservations.) The delay turned out to be not quite that long and we could get one of the pub’s special beers or a glass of wine at the bar while we waited. A space heater in the tiny foyer kept off the November chill.

The creation of chef Joel Coleman and his partner Josh Johns, Fire and Hops calls itself a culinary pub. I like its eclectic, creative menu and modest prices. As with any new business, there are some rough spots to smooth over, but business is flowing along well.

Long-time Santa Fe diners may remember this space as the former home of the popular Tulips restaurant. The front of the restaurant includes a bar with counter seating. The back dining room where my friends and I had a table allowed for some privacy; the other rooms looked to be more tightly packed with customers. Ambiance is minimal; a bit of art of the walls, simple tables, overhead lighting.

The focus here is on drinks, especially beer, as you’d suspect from the name, and food, categorized as snacks, small plates and larger plates. Tempting choices include a Thai beef salad, calamari, braised pork belly, ribs, and fish and chip fritters. Prices top out at $16.

It’s a menu for those of us bored with sliders and nachos. Finding something delicious and different to order is easy. Where else does a hungry soul have an opportunity to choose between a shepherd’s pie and a Thai sausage? You can get a burger or try the daily special. I like the concept, fresh and local, and the vibe feels like a neighborhood restaurant .

We started with some snacks while we studied the menu. I never thought I’d say this, but the pork rinds ($5) get a rousing endorsement. This was the first time I can recall seeing pork rinds on a Santa Fe menu. The server told us they make them in house. Yum!

The serving size was a large, shareable bowl full of these treats. They were lighter than popcorn, not greasy or too salty, crisp, warm and the color of corn silk. Clever and amazing!

Among the other dishes I sampled, I liked the Chiang Mai sausage plate and the shepherd’s pie best. The sausage plate ($16) was beautifully presented with a green papaya garnish and classic Thai black rice, which provided contrasting flavors and textures. The nicely seasoned pork sausage was juicy and different.

The shepherd’s pie ($15) featured bite-sized pieces of New Mexico lamb beneath a soft layer of potatoes mashed with parsnips for a slightly sweet accent. Unlike versions of this dish made with ground meat, the chopped lamb added a nice touch of chewiness and distinctive lamb flavor. Very, very good. The dish comes with two slices of bread – a little salad would be better.

We shared two desserts ($8 each) and liked them both. The chai panna cotta, a light, smooth custard-like treat, had a lovely just-sweet-enough creaminess. It arrived over a swirl of dark chocolate with a coconut tuile, an ultra-crisp, thin cookie. The pumpkin clafoutis reminded me of deluxe bread pudding, dense with pumpkin flavor. It’s served warm with a dollop of whipped cream.

I wasn’t as fond of the two evening specials I sampled. The “small plate” of Brussels sprouts straddled the thin line between grilled and burned. Most escaped just blackened on the edges, but a few were too charred to eat. Someone should have removed these rather than serving them.

The special entree, chicken pot pie, was good but not exceptional because the “gravy” was thin, and too abundant for the meat and veggies that swam in it.

Service was friendly and efficient.

Fire and Hops has a lot going for it. The owners have given the restaurant a neighborhood pub feel with the added benefit of a creative menu. It’s tough to be the new “in” place in Santa Fe’s competitive dining climate, but I hope this spunky restaurant is around for years to come.

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