SANTA FE, N.M. — Microbrew pubs are springing up all over northern New Mexico – perhaps the last and farthest shore to be lapped by this national wave. A great deal for beer enthusiasts and not a bad one for people who like a casual meal.
Fire & Hops, just one of Santa Fe’s examples, opened a couple of years ago and now plays to a full house, if our recent Thursday evening experience is any indication.
And with good reason: We enjoyed an exceptional burger, a nice risotto, flanked by a goodly pimiento cheese appetizer and a couple of stellar desserts, together with an excellent and exotic hard cider, and a couple of beer variations.
My beer enthusiast guest started off with a Malpais Stout, from Albuquerque’s La Cumbre Brewing ($5). He enjoyed it, but moved on to a black and tan, made with that stout and a pale ale, that left him especially pleased. We non-enthusiasts were jazzed by the beer menu itself. Off Color Scurry Altbier? Stone Wussie Pilsner? A lot more fun than a wine list.
My other guest opted for a Tieton cherry cider ($10 a bottle) – a mix of apple and cherry juices fermented to 6 percent alcohol. “You could get tiddly on this pretty easily” was her assessment, although, as designated driver, she took most of the carefully recorked bottle home for later.
The cider enthusiast also chose our collective appetizer, Fire & Hops’ crispy Brussels sprouts ($7). These were a true revelation. They were fried to a crisp (“brutally fried,” she said), charred almost black outside, barely tender inside, and tossed with a very sharp and elusively flavored dressing. Southeast Asian fish sauce and lime juice, the waiter informed us. Who knew a Brussels sprout could be so exciting? We demolished the entire bowl.
I opted for another appetizer, the pimiento cheese with black-eyed pea fritters ($8). I wasn’t particularly hungry that evening and, as a main course for a light appetite, it was just fine. I especially enjoyed the pimiento cheese, house-made and heavy on what I judged to be smoked paprika. The fritters were well done – very crisp outside, tender inside – but not particularly flavorful (black-eyed peas aren’t, after all). I missed the point. Bread, crackers, or just about anything would have done as well.
One of my guests opted for the Fire & Hops risotto, essentially a vegetarian concoction of kale, roasted peppers and squash, all mixed with always mushy arborio rice ($13). The bowl arrived showered generously with shaved Parmesan curls. She pronounced herself well satisfied. I was less impressed. If you want a bowl of veggies and carbs, though, this is it. And the cheese improved the otherwise bland flavor immensely.
My other guest’s green chile cheeseburger ($15) intrigued all of us and he generously shared out a couple of wedges. It was truly excellent: really big, perfectly cooked to medium and still a little pink, and laden with lots of nicely picante green chile with a pile of caramelized onions on the side. The cheddar was one of several cheese choices – extra points to Fire & Hops for that. And, for the bun, a perfect-size ciabatta roll firmly stood up to the juicy burger and its trimmings.
Pubs don’t rank high on my list of places to enjoy dessert, but Fire & Hops is definitely an exception. One of its co-owners runs La Lecheria, a craft ice cream shop over on Lena Street, and thus the night we dined, thyme ice cream ($2.50 a scoop) was one of the dessert choices. It was unusual, subtly herbed, sweet but not too much so, and very nice. More extravagantly, we opted for an apple clafoutis and a helping of sticky toffee pudding ($7 each). Both, in my experience, fall in the category of “homely” sweets – they’re easy to make and not demanding in form or formality.
All that applied to the sticky toffee pudding, a cakelike layer with nuts, glazed appropriately with a stout-laced sticky caramel and a pinch of sea salt. It was served up hot, in its own little casserole, and we happily stuck in our spoons.
Clafoutis might pass as a tart, and it’s usually made as a sort of free-form thick batter pancake studded with whatever fruit is at hand. At Fire & Hops, however, it’s much more refined. In fact, we didn’t see much relation to clafoutis. What we got, on an elegant porcelain rectangle, were squares of a dense vanilla pudding, studded with poached apples on top and crème anglaise on the bottom, and garnished with some quite remarkable apple “chips,” paper-thin wedges of apple deep-fried to the texture of home-made potato chips. A surprise, but a good one.
Fire & Hops is a cozy place and, by the time we left, a little after 7:30 p.m. Thursday, it was absolutely packed. The service is up to the crush, however; all our dishes arrived in a timely fashion and the waitstaff was remarkably attentive despite the crowd.
Parking is a little more problematic. Apart from a big bicycle rack and a couple of handicapped car slots in the front, you’ll have to take potluck on nearby streets or, after 5 p.m., at the various other businesses along North Guadalupe. We weren’t inconvenienced, but be aware that you’ll probably have to walk a block or so from car to front door.