'So, are you the Dirty Bastard? Or are you the Sly Fox?"
To the unreconstructed ears of a prerevolution Bud-drinking Joe, our waitress at the South Philadelphia Taproom might have come off as a little fresh.
But to those of us in the thirsty throes of this city's great brew renaissance, these were among the sweetest words a craft-beer barmaid could utter. Hands shot up across the table as my pals claimed the Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (Founders' Bastard) and the better-than-Guinness local stout (Sly Fox's O'Reilly's).
"'Damnation' over here!" said I, not wanting my Russian River strong ale to be lost in the shuffle. Not that that would happen at the South Philadelphia Taproom, where the waitresses know their dunkels from their D.I.P.A.'s, dish-out smart pairing advice for the menu (going German for sausages), and can drain a heifeweizen with the foamy grace of a München pro.
Of course, with Philly Beer Week set to launch this Friday on a rollicking craft brew bender through more than 800 events across the region, there's no shortage of venues now to get your beer geek on.
But the "SPTR" should get some extra consideration. Few gastropubs have shown the magnetic power of a great beer list quite as much as the Taproom since developer John Longacre opened it in 2003 as the city's southernmost beer pole. Its 14 fresh taps and 70-bottle list are enough to draw beer fans from far and wide.
But from its jukebox-rocking pair of renovated rowhouses at the corner of Mifflin and South Hicks, it presaged the beer bar frenzy that's now one of South Philly's most dynamic assets, and has also helped kick-start a Newbold regentrification that, according to Zillow.com, has given the 19145 neighborhood the second-fastest growing home prices of any zip code in America in 2009.
That means its Christmas light-strung bi-level rooms are usually brimming with hipster energy - bike messenger style, body art and knit caps in spring - plus a healthy sports crowd in team colors on their way to or from the stadiums. Add in Longacre's recently opened Brew next door, a craft beer take-out mecca and upscale coffee bar (called Ultimo), and you have the makings of a serious neighborhood institution.
But what has finally elevated SPTR to more destination status has been newfound stability in the kitchen with its latest chef, Scott Schroeder.
The Taproom's menus have never been boring, whether it's the signature wild boar tacos or the game meat fetish that led to a previous chef's departure after his lion meat pastry ignited an international furor.
Schroeder hasn't relinquished that daring streak, as evidenced by his grilled duck heart skewers streaked with wild garlic oil (inspired by Zahav), or the housemade headcheese that tops the surprisingly addictive little "Mexican Construction Worker-style Tacos."
But Schroeder has significantly stepped up this kitchen's consistency, and he's crystallized an identity for a wide-ranging menu that is just as dedicated to comfort food indulgences and sustainable ingredients as it is to exotic flavors.
One night, for example, we savored succulent Fire Island oysters on the half-shell splashed with tangy mignonette zipped-up with minced wild garlic and spring shallots. Then came a chilled vegan soup of refreshingly pureed Tuscan cantaloupe with spicy grilled poblano peppers and watercress. Then a meatier offering of homemade fennel-scented Italian sausage stuffed into a roll with provolone and peppers.
Another night's specials brought a generous ceviche bowl of Maine day boat scallops, electrified by a citrus-serrano marinade infused with smoked corn, a nod to Schoeder's stint at ¡Pasion! Meanwhile, his fried Amish bird, garlic- and herb-brined for juiciness, then crisped in a lively buttermilk crust, would be a serious contender for the city's best gastropub fried chicken had the biscuit not been as chewy as foam rubber.
To be sure, Schroeder's kitchen is far from perfect. The tempeh hoagie was slathered in too much vegan mayo. The "cheesesteak sliders," essentially shaved roasted rib-eye with cheese and onions on a pair of burger rolls, are neither true cheesesteaks nor small enough to be sliders. And I would have loved the Tabasco- and buttermilk fried chicken wings if those crispy morsels didn't still have so many feathers poking out from their zesty crusts.
And yet, SPTR constantly surprised me with moments of finesse when I least expected it. Like the gorgeous roasted beet and ricotta cheese salad. Or the extremely tender and lemony grilled calamari. Or the juicy fillet of Poconos trout sided with a watercress salad studded with bacon and corn. Or even the delicate garlic-butter crisp that lends his grilled cheese variations (smoked cheddar and provolone for the biggie; goat cheese for the mini) a perfectly snappy contrast to his rich tomato-lager soup.
Some of the Taproom's best flavors, though, draw on the increasing Mexican influence that's been pervading South Philly of late. The tacos with wild boar, slow roasted to intensely savory tenderness with chiles, cumin, cinnamon and Negro Modelo beer, have rightly become an SPTR fixture. More recent additions have come directly from Schroeder's Mexican line cooks, sous-chef Jorge Piña and his father, Jose Sr., whose occasional staff-meal snack of mini-headcheese tacos have become the special menu's most unlikely hit.
After eating half a dozen, I understand. With a smart upgrade to house-made headcheese that gets layered along with avocado and queso blanco atop freshly pressed masa coins fried to order in lard ("and love," says Schroeder), these are among the best $1 bar snacks I've eaten all year. The Piñas' Mexican hot dog – wrapped in bacon and topped with mayo and jalapeños – could easily become an ale-fueled addiction.
When it comes to sating the craft beer munchies, though, SPTR's dessert list of hopped-up Americana is hard to resist, from the PB&J fried in a crust of frosted flakes, to the whipped cream fluff and biscuits of strawberry shortcake, to Schoeder's signature "pot brownie."
Sorry, folks, not that kind of pot. But this over-the-top brownie sundae, served in a warm cast-iron crock beneath an avalanche of ice cream, walnuts, caramel, mint (for that special herb aroma) plus a deep-fried banana, is so decadent, it tastes just barely legal. Barely. So drink up, friends of the beer revolution, and dig in.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Treno in Westmont. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.