Let me just start by saying … I am not a foodie. Nor am I anywhere near a beer sommelier. I am pretty much a simple Duluth girl who likes to eat, enjoys drinking local craft beer, and relishes the adventure of trying new restaurants. Therefore, this isn’t your traditional food and beverage column. Hopefully, dear readers, you’ll forgive the fact that my enthusiasm for the subject matter will heavily outweigh my lack of sophistication. Cheers to being a newb!
So, join me on my maiden voyage as I dip my toes into the world of food and beverage pairing. We’ll start at the bottom, learning together as we go. The great thing about the marriage of beverage with cuisine is it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. And, today’s lesson, my friends, will most decidedly be simple. We’ll begin our quest at Duluth’s Tavern on the Hill, where the variety and quality of the food and beverages are vast and wonderful, and expert opinions are plentiful.
CRAFT BEER + CUISINE = A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
I have always been intrigued by the idea that food and beverages can be paired together to bring out the best flavors of each, either by complementing or contrasting flavors across the food-beverage spectrum. For instance, a sweeter beer often works well with a salty dish.
Most people think of pairing a meal with wine, but according to Epicurious.com, “Beer may actually be more food-friendly than wine is. Winemakers, after all, have one ingredient to play with: grapes. Two if you count barrel-aging. Beer makers, on the other hand, can experiment with barley (which adds sweetness), hops (which provides bitterness), yeast (which lends that characteristic “bready” flavor), as well as spices, nuts, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables.” Best of all, perhaps, is that there are no wrong answers! You can experiment to your heart’s content, or ask experts for their opinions, but ultimately, the best pairing is the one that you enjoy best.
TAVERN ON THE HILL
With an urban, trendy ambiance featuring drink specials written on chalkboards, artistic drop lighting, and enormous murals, Tavern’s style seems geared towards millennials and the happy hour crowd.
Whether your workplace attire consists of scrubs, dressy casual, or suit and tie, however, this is a comfy and casual place to grab a beer and a bite after work. The newest member in the Black Woods Group family (joining Black Woods Grill & Bar, Black Water Lounge, Black Woods Catering, and Greysolon Ballroom), I liken Tavern to being the super pretty, yet approachable, little sister. Your seating options include a huge outdoor patio, a spacious dining area, or a large and well-furnished bar.
“I am a huge avocado enthusiast, so I asked for some fresh slices to accompany my tacos. ‘Have you tried our fried avocado?’ our server asked. Wait, what?!”
MY FOOD AND DRINK GUIDES
My dining companion was my husband, Mike, whose culinary tastes are pretty simple, but he knows a lot about beer; he is a beverage salesman by trade. Oh, and he was also the photographer for the piece. Bonus!
Our server, Nick Weber, was polite and charming, delighting us with stories about his mother’s favorite dish (the avocado tacos), and answering all of my relentless questions with a smile.
Nick knows an awful lot about beer, particularly of the local variety, and which dishes work best with each beverage. Therefore, I owe a debt of gratitude for the complementary flavors of my delicious meal to him. When in doubt, ask the server, I say!
WHAT WE ORDERED
Being that the day was muggy and warm, I wasn’t in the mood for anything too heavy. But I do like a little flavor. With a bit of guidance from Nick, I decided on the spicy shrimp tacos. Here’s what Tavern’s menu has to say about the dish:
“Two street tacos topped with cilantro sour cream, Tavern slaw, and quartered farm-fresh cherry tomatoes. Served with a side of Sriracha sour cream and a crock of our housemade black bean and rice casserole.”
Sounds delish, right? But it gets even better.
I am a huge avocado enthusiast, so I asked for some fresh slices to accompany my tacos. “Have you tried our fried avocado?” Nick asked. Wait, what?! Tavern’s signature fried avocado is covered with a crispy crumb-style breading, while the inside remains creamy and delicious. I highly recommend it. My two tacos included four generous slices of avo.
After discussing several recommended beverage pairings, I selected the slightly sweet Castle Danger Cream Ale, brewed just north of us at Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors.
My husband paired the “50/50 burger” (half ground beef, half bacon–juicy and served on a soft white bun) with some kettle chips, which come as the standard side, with a Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss, brewed in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. This pairing was also Nick-approved. As a “meat and potatoes” type of guy who loves to put bacon on his bacon, Mike was more than happy with his dinner.
THE VERDICT – FOOD
The shrimp tacos were served on an attractive rectangular white dish, propped upright with some kind of fancy metal taco-holding device, with the rice and beans served
separately in a cute, little white crock. Excellent presentation.
Each soft-shelled taco contained four plump, juicy, grilled shrimp, a couple cherry tomato halves, plenty of “Tavern slaw” (kind of like coleslaw, but heavy on the red cabbage), and cilantro sour cream mixed in. Yum. I opted to eat this delicious, messy concoction with a fork.
The rice and bean casserole was topped with a bit of melted cheese, and definitely had some kick to it. It was a little dry, so I heaped some of the Sriracha sour cream on top (served, thankfully, in a ramekin on the side), and I was immediately sorry.
I like a little spice, but this stuff is definitely of the “dip the tines of your fork in it … don’t dump it on your casserole” variety. It definitely had good flavor, but it was HOT. Maybe next time, I’d ask for a little mild salsa or plain sour cream to accompany the casserole.
What the heck is Sriracha, anyway? Haven’t you always wanted to know? According to Wikipedia, it is “A type of hot sauce or chili sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It is named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in Chonburi Province of eastern Thailand, where it may have been first produced for dishes served at local seafood restaurants.” The more you know!
THE VERDICT – BEER
The sweetness of my beer was an excellent complement to the spiciness and saltiness of the meal. The Cream Ale was medium bodied, subtlety sweet, and with a smooth and creamy texture … hence the name, Cream Ale. The more Sriracha I ate, the more Cream Ale I was driven to consume.
For dessert, I indulged in the “Bent Paddle Ice Cream Float,” which is basically like combining the sweetness of a delicious classic dessert known for being well-loved by children with the adult joys of alcohol. I was served a tiny, adorable pitcher of Duluth’s Bent Paddle Cold Press Black – a dark, slightly bitter, locally brewed beer, with strong notes of coffee and chocolate, together on a platter with a tiny Mason jar of vanilla ice cream.
Upon pouring the beer into the ice cream, the alchemy turned the mixture into a sweet, thick, creamy concoction, much like a traditional root beer float. But with beer. Heaven.
Final thoughts: Tavern on the Hill was a delightful place to grab a casual, low-key dinner, and the servers are surprisingly well-versed in the art of pairing. I would absolutely order the spicy shrimp tacos again, but next time, I’d ask them to hold the Sriracha.
Written by Andrea Busche for Duluth.com the Magazine. Get yours on newsstands toady!