The Mile High Club
As I start this entry, I’m sitting in a 2 feet by 2 feet chair (or box) perched 40,000 feet in the air. That’s right people. Delta has Wi-Fi and I intend to use it. Please excuse any typos that may make it through, I’ve been hit in the head and shoulder about 20 times from passer-byers walking up and down the aisle on my 5 hour flight. I suppose that is what I get for wanting easy access to complimentary beverages and the bathroom. With 3 more hours till I land in Cincinnati (followed soon after by a prop plane flight to North Carolina) what better time than now to update SF Tao of Pao with the latest Burger Club rendezvous at 21st Amendment Brewery in SOMA.
On a rainy night last week, I met up with about 10 other burger enthusiasts at the local alehouse just down from AT&T Park. As I drove down 2nd Street, I felt a bit nervous seeing policeman directing traffic due to a blackout that affected the surrounding blocks. Would my night of burgers and watermelon beer be spoiled by the inclement weather? I held my breath, waiting to find out as I walked up to the hot spot. Luckily, 21st Amendment narrowly escaped this dark fate and as a result, it was filled with hungry clients and beer drinkers, all looking for a sanctuary in which to warm their bodies and fill their stomachs. I’m glad I called ahead for a table because this place was PACKED. Giants’ fans. Tourists. Locals. SOMA tech geeks. Financial district d-bags. For a Wednesday night, it was a rowdy and diverse scene and our group was ready to engage.
The name “21st Amendment” makes reference to the amendment ratified to end Prohibition. Let’s take a brief flashback to 1920. Women had just made major headway, winning the right to vote, yet the abundant brewpub culture came to a screeching halt with the introduction of Prohibition. For 13 years the pubs dried out and beer drinking bordered on extinction. Is it just coincidence that the Great Depression hit 9 years later in 1929? I don’t think so. You try going 13 years without a sip of your favorite ale and then tell me how happy and hopeful you are.
Founders of 21st Amendment Brewery, Nico Freccia and Shaun O’Sullivan, opened the local alehouse centered on, “The Right to Be Original.” The brewery is a big “F you” to the Prohibition, or any force that seeks to threaten originality, innovation, or just general enjoyment of life. The attitude comes through in its beer names; like the Bitter American or Brew Free! Or Die IPA – an India Pale Ale which the founders describe as a “sucker punch of six different hops.” The beer is malt brewed and definitely provides a quick hit to the face with 7% alcohol by volume. Their latest creation, Monk’s Blood, is a tribute to Belgian monks, who in times of fast, subsisted on beer. The brew is dark and rich, with hints of cinnamon, vanilla bean and figs. You can buy them in four-packs and with 8.3% alcohol volume, each can has you praising the heavens.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Multiple people recommended 21st Amendment for its tasty Build-Your-Own burgers and variety of locally-brewed beer. What goes better together than beers and burgers? Yup, I can’t think of anything else either. Except maybe beers, burgers and football. With TV screens and plenty of space to mingle, 21st Amendment is a place to get aggressive, and we had an aggressive group on site that evening.
Our table started the meal with a couple appetizers: golden beer-battered onion hoops and zucchini strings. The onion hoops were lightly battered, which allowed for crisp, hot bites – something I appreciate because soggy ones are just LTI (Less Than Impressive). The thick slices were served with a spicy play on ketchup. Although I am normally a strict Heinz 57 loyalist, I supported this extra flavor accent. The zucchini strings were thinly sliced with a buttermilk batter, allowing for a salty, crunchy experience. The side dip of garlic aioli was a welcome change from typical ranch dressing. They were definitely a step up from the zucchini fries I ate at Keller’s Burger Bar a couple months back (Link: http://sftaoofpao.com/pao-chow-parent/the-last-suppers-part-1-bushi-tei-and-burger-bar/).
With fried goodness covering our tongues, we were in the mood for a thirst-quenching drink to help offset the saltiness. 21st Amendment offers an extensive selection: Belgian style beers, stouts, the aforementioned IPAs, and my favorite – the famed Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer. Every batch is fermented with 400 lbs of fresh watermelon puree and juice. I’d had the canned version of this prior (you can buy it at local Safeways in the city) but ordering at the alehouse is the way to go. It’s served in a tall pilsner glass, filled to the brim with watermelon beer, and includes a slice of watermelon as garnish. I had never dipped watermelon in beer before, but I certainly did that Wednesday night and will definitely be repeating. The beer’s subtle watermelon flavor is not overwhelming, nor is it overly sweet like other fruit-infused beers I’ve had in the past. It is refreshing, light and goes down easily. No wonder Draft Magazine named it the Top Summer Beer of 2009. My second beer was a stronger Holiday Spice beer that left my tongue buzzing with the familiar citrus acidity common to many Belgian beers.
Now on to the main topic of the day: Build-Your-Own- burgers. 21st Amendment offers only the finest Niman Ranch ground beef chuck. Every burger automatically comes with thick-sliced tomatoes and heaps of grilled onions. Fries or mixed greens are a typical addition, or you can opt for Kennebec potato chips. For your burger build, you can choose from a selection of different toppings, all priced between $1.00 and $1.50 each. For the dairy group, enjoy the typical array of Swiss, cheddar, jack or bleu cheeses. Other toppings include sprouts, fresh jalapenos, bacon, avocado, sautéed mushrooms and homemade chili.
For my meal that day I opted for my typical go-to: Swiss cheese and mushrooms and also stole a number of jalapenos from my friend Phyllis. I ordered my burger medium-rare (obviously) and it was executed to perfection with a healthy amount of pink in the middle of my patty. I was impressed with the healthy load of toppings on my burger, especially the sheer amount of melted Swiss, but I must say the sautéed mushrooms had a weird aftertaste so I will skip them next time I go. My friend Carlos ordered his burger with bacon and avocado and touts it as one of the best burgers he’s had in the city. Normally I would be cautious believing such potential exaggeration, but Carlos is a man who knows his food and takes it seriously.
In the end of it all, I would rate 21st Amendment Brewery as hands-down a Pao Wow on both the Pao Chow and Pao Sip fronts. The service was prompt, the drinks plentiful and creative, the scene perfect for a large rambunctious group of carnivores, and the juicy burgers met, if not exceeded our taste expectations. Aside from all this, the establishment espouses a liberal challenge to authority or anything that threatens to control the human spirit. This characteristic is only too appropriate for our great city of San Francisco, and reminds us to not just quench our thirst, but to do so with originality.