About halfway through my second visit to Crooked Fence Barrelhouse in Garden City, I had what amounted to a stunning realization: Everything I had tried was great. The ingredients are high-quality, dishes are prepared simply but with skill, and prices are more than fair. Everything I had, I would order again. And there are a half-dozen other intriguing items left to try.
Lets not say that it was perfect its too soon, for one thing, as the Barrelhouse has only been open for a few weeks. And as can be seen by the subtle shifts between the menus posted on their Facebook page and those presented to you in the restaurant, the food is still evolving. Service needs to jell, too, as the crew seems to be working as individuals and not yet as a team, largely unaware of each others sections and only through this teamwork will they be able to handle the rushes that bury them now. But among all the nachos-and-wings kind of places in the Treasure Valley, where the food feels obligatory rather than special, I can already make this announcement: The Barrelhouse has leapt to the head of the class.
The location, in the same plaza as the Revolution Center across Glenwood Street from Expo Idaho, Les Bois Park and Memorial Stadium is astute, perhaps the only place where a bar and grill actually filled an unmet need.
On several recent occasions, the dining room was bustling with a mixed crowd older couples, fishermen just off the river, families. There is a strip of patio outside, but the traffic and heat right now drive business indoors, where the room is blissfully cool and darkened. The decor inside is rustic-Western-meets-industrial, with rough pine-plank booths and reclaimed barnwood accents, a brick-red concrete floor and exposed ceiling. Over the long bar is a wrought-iron chandelier. Beyond that is a trophy buck. Poster art of Crooked Fence beer brands lines the uncluttered walls.
Begin any meal here with a flight of beers four 4-ounce pours of your choice for $4, a great introduction to Crooked Fence brewing. (Guest taps are available, too.) Most Crooked Fence beers are immediately drinkable, such as the Rusty Nail pale ale, if not a little mild. I am not a hoppy IPA guy, so the Devils Pick is fine by me. At 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, the Sins of Our Fathers has terrific liftoff, and four ounces will do it.
Fried food is usually pretty good with beer, but the Barrelhouse goes a seemingly obvious step further. It has always baffled me why any place that brews its own beer would not make full use of such a truly unique ingredient in its cuisine. Here, chef Frank Garro does it with aplomb. The red-hot sauce on the giant, crispy wings ($8.75) is made with Devils Pick IPA; with from-scratch blue cheese dressing, these are the best Ive had in recent memory. The Fries a la Crooked ($9) are a take on poutine, the gravy-and-cheese-smothered Canadian indulgence. Here, a rich Sins peppercorn sauce replaces the gravy to great success, and a huge pile of delicious hand-cut fries is topped with shaved prime rib and shredded parmesan.
The best appetizer is not made with beer, but its engineered perfectly to pair with it: The smoked chicken and sweet potato croquettes ($7.75) are sweet and creamy, little crispy barrels of sugar, fat, and salt. Plus, they are served with whipped garlic mayo.
Among the sandwiches, the spicy smoking meatloaf is a standout. Served on griddled Zeppole ciabatta with good, pulpy house-made barbecue sauce, the best feature is the meatloafs dark, crisped exterior, otherworldly with smoke. As tasty as it is, it could still go to another levelwith a charred red onion, perhaps, or house-made pickles.
Even a simple entree like the grilled salmon ($14.75) was memorable a dense filet of wild fish, perfectly cooked, lightly seasoned with herb butter. The red-skinned garlic mash was good, and the accompanying squash were sauteed golden in a pan. Served with a Greek-ish house salad ($8 for the full size), this dish is priced almost unsustainably low.
While the menu plays to the middle with wraps, burgers and familiar entree salads, one section celebrates the unusual. The corned beef taco ($3) was less strange than it sounds. The crossed paths of corned beef and horseradish with cabbage and pico de gallo in a corn tortilla work surprisingly well together.
The absolute must-try unusual item is the braised short ribs ($12.50). Fork-tender boneless chuck ribs are slow-cooked in 3 Picket Porter, served on a piping white-bean cassoulet of shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and dried chilies. This comes with a slice of Zeppole beer bread and a side dish a meal youd pay more than $20 for elsewhere.
Even the one dessert I tried, a giant brookie with vanilla ice cream ($6.50), has beer in its veins its a cross between a brownie and an oatmeal cookie, in which youll find spent grains from the brewing process. If were thinking grand, perhaps a Sins chocolate ganache is in order?
There is much left to discover: house-made sausages, a Hungarian turkey burger and porter chili baked into Frito-chili pie. One item that will draw a great deal of attention is the glazed burger; the menu says imagine candied bacon, hamburger patty, and cheddar cheese all in a glazed donut bun. To me, that is probably best left to the imagination. But everything else, I actually want to eat.
How often is it that a restaurant makes such a strong opening statement that instead of tentatively waiting for it to hit its stride, we are only hopeful it can keep up the good work?
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org