This story was originally published at EatABQ, the city's food, restaurant and drinks guide. EatABQ is a publication of The Paper, ABQ's new alternative, independent weekly.
Brewery Bites For a Brighter Future
Pre-pandemic, the beer business in the Duke City was booming. It seemed you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a new brewery. There were exciting new beers to try every-which-where, awards being won, and the sudsy juggernaut felt not only like the go-to-both as an outing or something to do before a flick or errands—but a thing folks in the city were truly proud of as well.
But that was then.
Now, as with nearly every other business out there, it’s tough to keep the lights on. Curbside sixers surely have helped; but at sometimes $10 per, that’s honestly only for those not also crippled by the tanking economy. Even for households of plenty, there’s only room to stockpile so many local offerings. But grabbing up some pub grub instead of something quick and easy might just go a long way to seeing more normalcy when the dust of this pandemic does finally settle. Because any breweries serving more than the requisite pretzels or chips-and-salsa pub snacks also have commercial kitchens and staff to pay for, so getting them back up and running promises an influx of some much-needed additional revenue.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to check back in on Steel Bender Brewyard—in particular because, pre-pandemic, they’d made some rock-solid changes to their original 2017 menu. Of especial interest were the vegan/vegetarian options. It has to be said that many places give short-shrift to diners seeking to supplant (huh huh, plant) animal-based proteins. Steel Bender caught my eye by putting their best plant-foodie-foot forward, while still offering a whole host of burgers and sandwiches for carnivores. With COVID-19 impacting so many businesses, I wanted to see if those tasty vittles had survived.
One of the major issues when looking for a meal made of non-animal protein is just how filling the replacement will be. Does it offer enough heft to get the job done? When it comes to the Vegetarian Seitan Wings (whole order $12.50, half order $7.50), the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The wheat-gluten is cut into two- or even three-bite nuggets. The real trick is the chefs then roll them in a mixture of corn meal and nutritional yeast, adding a real earthy punch and varied texture after they’re fried up. They’re then tossed in your choice of six sauces—though I recommend the bite and spice of their BBQ over the rest. There’s plenty to share if you’ve got more than one vegetarian in the bunch (or just folks like me that admire a delicious and substantial way to consume less animal protein). Or just make it a sturdy meal all your own.
In my never-ending search for the finest plant-based burger offerings citywide, Steel Bender’s B.Y.O. Impossible Burger ($14) delivers all the flavor and protein of a regular beef burger, with precious little of the global and ethical downside. An Impossible burger patty is sizzled up on a griddle, then topped with lettuce, tomato, condiments and red onion, if you’d like. They get their breads from Pastian’s Bakery, and the sumptuous bun gets a quick sear that holds up to the generous extras. I added Swiss cheese and green chile (both an extra buck) for my build my own. The creamy, slightly salty Swiss plus the deep, flavorful green chile combine for a flavor that is sure to delight locals. It’s a slam-dunk, plant-based burger for both vegetarians and meat-lovers alike, and judging by the technique and ingredients, I’m confident that the fully leaded regular burgers deliver for anyone not in the plant-based market.
Speaking of those not interested in plant-based (and in what I hope is a tremendously clever reference to Coming to America’s faux-McDonald’s fictional food joint, McDowell’s), The Royal McDowell ($13.50) has all the earmarks of a super-elevated McRib. It’s generous, boneless hunks of smoked spare-rib meat, done up as a sammy and topped with pickles, onions and house-made Steel Bender sauce on a fine Pastian’s Bakery hoagie roll. The burgers and sandwiches come with a side, and while the fries are solid, with this sandwich the cole slaw seemed the right choice. It’s got both fresh, bright bits of cabbage and carrot and just the right amount of cream. If I’m splitting hairs, I want some bigger, bolder pickled and spiced notes in a coleslaw—especially with a sandwich as ambitious at the Royal McDowell. Still, it’s better than the typical coleslaw out there, so don’t be put off by my capricious dream of every bite being dialed in to perfection.
As a way to pump up what has become a proud Albuquerque institution, supporting local beer makers makes good cultural and economic sense. Anyone with a grumble in their stomach can double the impact of keeping their dollars locals by ordering not just curbside sixers, but generous meals to help soak up all that economic recovery! It’s a win/win that gives us an opportunity at a seminormal-looking life once we can all get through the teeth of this pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I am really looking forward to sitting on a patio, cold one in hand—and a big part of making that a reality is making sure your favorite spots survive. So get out there (and by that I mean stay in!), wear a mask, stay safe and do your part to keep Albuquerque well beer-ed. [ ]