Every mountain resort town should have a funky brewpub where people can hang out and quaff handcrafted beers and swap tall tales of the great outdoors. Salmon River Brewery in McCall fits that bill.
It's a little off the worn path - tucked away along a quiet stretch of Colorado Street, about six blocks south of Payette Lake - but easy to find. Just look for the A-framed building with empty kegs stacked out front. It's also hard to miss the two kegs taking a ride in a repurposed ski-lift chair, hanging from a large pine tree.
This brewpub has a decidedly mellow vibe. But most important, it turns out a bevy of seasonal and flagship ales and serves decent Northwest-inspired pub food.
The decor is mountain shabby chic, to say the least. Scuffed-up plank floors let people know that this place has been busy since it opened in 2009. The beer garden out back has fire pits and a comfy seating area. Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic tunes bubble from the speakers. Friendly servers hustle about carrying pints of brew and plates of fried pickles, and during a recent visit, rattling off the chronology of what bands played with the Dead at Autzen Stadium (in Eugene, Ore.) during the '80s.
No one would guess that this microbrewery is co-owned by Adolphus Busch IV, an heir to the Anheuser-Busch beer fortune. Matt Ganz and Matt Hurlbutt, the founders and primary owners of Salmon River Brewery, became associates with Busch after he walked into their brewpub a few years back to discuss a business proposition. Busch frequently visits Central Idaho for river-rafting trips, and it was on one of those excursions when he tried Salmon River's Udaho Gold ale.
The extra money from Busch's coffers allowed Ganz and Hurlbutt to buy more brewing equipment and a better truck for delivering kegs. The tiny brewery is adjacent to the pub, visible through windows from the small dining room and bar area.
One night, during happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. daily), we ordered an oversize pretzel ($3) and some ale-battered pickles ($3), washed down with Nutty Ambro brown ale ($3), a tasty brew with distinct caramelized notes.
The big, twisted pretzel, studded with granules of kosher salt, came straight from the oven, golden brown and served with a spicy cheese sauce that smacked of Velveeta. More impressive were the three battered and deep-fried dill pickle spears, crispy and exploding with hot vinegar with each bite, next to a ramekin of buttermilk ranch dressing.
Salmon River's menu is small, but it covers the bases well with a brew-friendly array of entree salads, burgers and other sandwiches.
The pub's black-and-blue elk burger ($10.50) is popular around these parts. But ironically, the farm-raised elk used to make the third-pound burger patties hail from Colorado, not Idaho. Evidently the Gem State doesn't have as many elk farms as it once did - before the Great Recession. I really don't care where the hooves were on the ground, though. It's a damn good burger, grilled and piled high on a locally-made onion bun, with gooey blue-cheese crumbles, sauteed onions, lettuce, tomato and peppery mayonnaise.
A pint of hoppy P.F.D. Pale Ale ($3) paired well with the Southwest-influenced salmon burger ($11), a wild Alaskan salmon patty (such as the kind you find at Costco) served on an onion bun with melted Swiss cheese, salsa fresca, avocado, lettuce and lemony aioli.
All burgers are served in baskets with plain kettle chips, straight out of a bag. But who needs fries when a place serves deep-fried pickles.
The fish and chips ($8) are nothing to write home to Seattle about. Four freezer-to-fryer battered cod fillets came with kettle chips, lemon wedges and a typical dill-kicked tartar sauce.
On the other hand, the stout float ($7) turned out to be a good experience. Everyone at the table enjoyed watching the chemical reaction caused by the chocolatey oatmeal stout mingling with vanilla ice cream in a chilled glass - a bittersweet symphony, if you will.
All in all, the food at Salmon River Brewery is a notch above average (there's not enough scratch-cooking going on here for my liking), but the excellent brews more than make up for the kitchen's lack of culinary aptitude.
Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org