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Bittersweet treat: Chama River Brewing’s outstanding beers, fanciful snacks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chama River Brewing Co. in Northeast Albuquerque is among the state’s powerhouse brewers, helping the city earn distinctions as one of the best craft beer markets in the nation, so it’s not surprising that despite all its focus on food and food presentation, beer remains its strong point.

After more than 12 years in operation, Chama River is known for its small-batch and seasonal craft beers. I was looking for a random sample of the brewer’s abilities, so rather than a middle-of-the-road IPA, I opted for something different. The Seasoned Strop is a dark-honey-colored Belgium double IPA that’s an attention-getting 8 percent alcohol, and the description promisingly boasts of “a medley of citric aromatics.” But I was more interested in the 120 IBU rating, a high number on the International Bitterness Unit scale, even for a double IPA.

Bitterness in a beer might not be a bad thing, especially when the beer is paired with the right food; the Seasoned Strop ($3.75 for a 10-ounce pour) doesn’t disappoint. It starts with a rich and powerful first impression of floral sweetness, but then it quickly ends with a sharp, leathery finish that lingers pleasantly. If you drink one beer with dinner, and you want to sip it, this would be an excellent choice.

Paired with the carrot ginger soup, though, the strop wasn’t right. Either the soup was too bland – it tastes exactly how it looks: earthy tan with cloudy drops of crème fraîche that together was neither sweet nor savory – or the beer was too bitter. In any case, I pushed the beer aside to focus on the soup and then realized that it was having an identity crisis. The carrot was too weak and the ginger was too strong, and they combined to formed an utterly indistinct creamy flavor. Unlike the beer, the soup had no idea who it was.

An unimpeachable rule of mine is that if an appetizer costs more than $10 and seafood isn’t the main ingredient, that appetizer should feel like a meal. My guest and I decided to order a few appetizers, soup and a beer, and we asked our waiter if that would fill us up.

“I sure hope so,” he said as he walked away, apparently unaware of the responsibilities that lie unspoken within the diner-waiter covenant.

As it turns out, $65 spent on drinks, soup and three appetizers does not feel like a meal for two people. The mildly spicy baby back ribs are tiny and come stacked up like Lincoln Logs and are accompanied by a beet-stained coleslaw. The ribs are covered in a sweet, spicy jelly that, on its own, might have worked, but for no good reason at all, these ribs were sprinkled generously with roughly diced cilantro (and a few pungent stems) and left to fend for themselves in a cruel world.

A word about cilantro: It’s absolutely a terrific spice.

Cilantro is not a universal flavor, though, and a little bit goes a long way.

What Chama River Brewing Co. hoped to accomplish was “fusion,” a marriage between two distinct cuisines – Asian and New Mexican. What happened instead was fission, and both cuisines were left slightly diminished for having been involved in the affair.

The truffled blue cheese fries were great but could have been better had they been served hot out of the fryer. Most of our order consisted of little potato orphans from the bottom of the sack, and the whole dish was missing the dipping sauce we Americans have come to expect with fries. The truffle oil and bits of blue cheese were a nice touch, though, and the quantity was worth the $7.75.

Fish tacos, another appetizer, were delicious, plump balls of breaded white meat sitting on top of mini blue corn tortillas and garnished with a salsa of yellow corn, black beans and tiny bits of avocado. The tortillas were too small to act as a traditional taco vessel, but the flavors were good. They went well with the fries and really well with the extra-bitter IPA.

The decor is hard to pin down at Chama River but includes framed black-and-white photographs of vintage brewers that seemingly have no direct connection to either Albuquerque or the restaurant’s parent company, which includes Blue Corn Cafe and Rio Chama Steakhouse.

Overall, Chama River Brewing Co. is a great place for a well-crafted local brew and a fanciful snack, but don’t expect a hearty meal at a reasonable price. Instead, appreciate the brewery for what it does best: outstanding and affordable craft beers made right here in Albuquerque.

2 stars