Familiar food, liberal libations
Gordon Biersch still pulsates despite uneven kitchen and waitstaff
Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch founded their eponymous brew pub-restaurant chain right here in Palo Alto, in 1988, on the site of what was once the Rialto Theater.
The space has a sky-high ceiling, lots of glass in the front, and sturdy wood tables and chairs. The bar area, replete with jumbo TV screens, dominates the rear of the building.
Gordon Biersch is now a chain of 38 eateries scattered across the U.S., situated wherever throngs of young people hang out. Messrs. Gordon and Biersch are long gone; the restaurants are now operated by Big Rivers Brewery of Chattanooga, Tenn. The brewery operation is owned by a billionaire from Las Vegas. So much for the local connection.
Ownership doesn't stand in the way of having a good time, though, and that's what Gordon Biersch is all about, from Happy Hour to Monday night live broadcasts of "Inside Stanford Sports." It's a vibrant restaurant early in the evening, segueing to pulsing bar scene as the night unfolds.
What unsettled me on one of those early evenings was the state of the restrooms. Both women's (so I was told) and men's rooms were littered with soiled paper towels and puddles of water on the floors and sinks. I can understand untidiness when the place is jammed, but not at 6 p.m. with few other diners in the restaurant. It made me wonder: If the public areas were that slovenly, what must the kitchen look like? Perhaps the kitchen was pristine, but the red alert was already echoing in my head.
I found the menu huge, with more than 100 items counting sides and daily specials. It's a big assignment for any kitchen to turn out perfect orders with regularity, even given the relative simplicity of the dishes. The unevenness of the food was palpable, not only from visit to visit, but course to course.
Crispy artichoke hearts ($9.50) were a great way to start any meal. The crispy 'chokes were topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and tasted as good as any I've had in Castroville. Alas, the lemon aioli dipping sauce was lifeless and the 'chokes were better without.
The Kobe sliders ($11.95) were terrific. Three tender Kobe beef mini burgers were sandwiched between tender house-made rolls with a slice of kosher dill pickle and mustard sauce. Served with fried onion strings, the sliders were a meal by themselves.
Southwest egg rolls ($9.25) were bursting with flavor. Pulled chicken, black beans, corn, roasted red peppers and pepper jack cheese were stuffed inside crisp wrappers. The roasted jalapeno ranch dipping sauce was piquant enough to energize the egg rolls without scorching the tongue.
Chicken wings ($8.95) glazed with sweet chili and ginger made for the perfect appetizer, enough tang to awaken the taste buds but not too big a portion to subdue the appetite. The signature Gordon Biersch garlic fries ($5.95) were as tasty as ever, with the garlic much in evidence but not overpowering the crisp fries.
After starters, Gordon Biersch offers eight pizzas with an option to create your own from a myriad of ingredients. The roasted garlic and chicken pizza ($12.25) had a white cream sauce base, topped with roasted garlic and pulled chicken breast. The large pizza (plenty big to share) was short on chicken and long on garlic. I picked off more than half the garlic — it was just too much, and I had a hard time identifying or tasting much chicken. There was a wonderful doughy crust, though: not too thick, packed with flavor.
The Cajun fish tacos ($12.95) were tender chunks of sauteed mahi-mahi with pepper jack cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo (finely chopped vegetables) and Cajun remoulade sauce in a crisp blue-corn tortilla, overwrapped with a soft flour tortilla. The two tacos were fresh, colorful and good eating. Inexplicably, the accompanying black beans and rice were cold.
The cedar-plank-seared, pecan-crusted salmon ($20.95) was a disaster. Cedar is supposed to infuse the fish with a delicate smoky flavor. There was flavor to the dish, all right, although smoky is not an adjective I would use. The honey pecan crust was at odds with whatever the wood flavor was. The result was a most unappealing entree.
Further, the salmon was absolutely raw just under the pecan crust. Unhappily, I found that my waitress was nowhere around. Despite my frequent protestations about waitstaff in other restaurants constantly questioning patrons about the quality of each dish, this was one instance when I wished the server had been more attentive. When she finally showed and offered to have the dish remade, we were finished eating. She did take it off the bill, though.
Which brings me to overall service, which was generally too fast or too slow. Sometimes it took an inordinate amount of time for the dessert to come, or the check, or fresh utensils. None of the waitstaff I observed ever looked around the room that he or she was serving. A waiter would just zero in on one task, at one table, despite other diners trying to get his or her attention.
Desserts were as mixed a bag as the rest. The best was the warm apple bread pudding ($6.50), a gigantic serving with pecans, vanilla ice cream and whiskey sauce. It was plenty for two, maybe four diners after a filling meal. Flavors were good, not overly sweet, but the ice cream was overkill.
For drinks, there were a half-dozen mellow Gordon Biersch beers on tap, plus other labels. The wine list was good and fairly priced with dozens of wines available by the glass. Martinis, margaritas and alcohol-free cocktails rounded out the lengthy libations menu.
Gordon Biersch the brew pub has a lot to offer. Gordon Biersch the restaurant perhaps offers more than the kitchen and waitstaff can handle with consistency.
640 Emerson St, Palo Alto
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: loud
Bathroom cleanliness: fair