Among the concrete sprawl and soulless logo-glow filling the University Village Colorado shopping center sit a few local gems, businesses whose owners have optimistically taken on the rent and association with the likes of Costco to reach a growing sector of the city. The money in these businesses comes in from the local community, and goes back out that way.
BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse is not one of these businesses.
The restaurant chain started in Orange County, Calif., in 1978, and is now based in Huntington Beach; its stock is traded on the NASDAQ (and is worth almost twice what it was a year ago); it counts roughly 100 locations, four in Colorado alone; and its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reads, "Our primary business objective is to continue our national expansion program and attempt to capture additional market share."
So it's with mixed feelings that I report its food is pretty damn good. And, though it's not brewed on-site, so is its beer.
The big three
Of course, the food is good for all the wrong reasons — nearly everything we tried registers high in salt, fat or sugar. But chemically calculated or not, items like the avocado egg rolls ($9.75) are sublime. Warm avocado slices, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, pine nuts and chipotle peppers get wrapped in a thin, crispy wonton and served with spicy-sweet tamarind sauce, making for possibly the best item among more than a hundred on a gigantic 16-page menu.
The grapefruit-pink tuna in the ahi poke ($8.50) is slightly fishy, but the complementary avocado mounds fight back with creaminess, and the Sun Chip-like wonton crisps finish off a perfect texture trio.
Small-plate starters like the garlic Parmesan kettle-style chips ($2.95), the Hawaiian shrimp skewers ($3.95) and the chicken fajita quesadillas ($3.95) are good, as well as a good value. The kettle chips are fresh, with a thick crunch; the two skewers pierce plump, medium-sized shrimp plus veggies; and the quesadillas offer three packed tortilla triangles.
Known for its pizza, BJ's is hit-and-miss with its deep-dish. The Mediterranean (mini/$10.25, small/$14.25, medium/$19.95, large/$22.95) arrives with all the advertised ingredients, but only one flavor: Kalamata olives. The basil pesto, grilled garlic, feta and pepperoncinis seem to be on some kind of taste hiatus, while the tomatoes come off as more stewed than sun-dried. On the other hand, the BJ's Favorite (same prices) of meatballs, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, green bell peppers, black olives, onions and tomatoes is thick and buttery, bulbous, cheesy, greasy greatness.
Other entrées include the pleasant salt-bomb known as Derek's Favorite Meatloaf Sandwich ($9.95), the heavenly blackened New Orleans Jambalaya ($14.95) and the over-buttered California Burger ($8.75). The meatloaf comes plated hot and thick with shreds of carrots, onions, celery and the like, in two slabs leaning over a pile of creamy (but salty) mashed potatoes, on a toasted garlic French roll; the protein-packed jambalaya offers the perfect deep-throat burn over a hearty rice pilaf; and the burger, though nicely understated with the flavor of green chilies and avocado, suffers from too much butter on its sourdough bread.
For lighter fare, the iceberg-dominated house salad ($5.25) is subpar, and, disappointedly, so is the Garden Medley Salad ($8.95). The otherwise-standard Piranha Pale Ale Chili ($5.50) lacks any hint of booze, but the broccoli cheddar ($5.50) and its crack-cocaine combination of salt, cheese, butter and cream more than compensate.
Lastly, the dessert Pizookie Trio ($8.95) is utter sugar-high heaven — as ice cream over a hot peanut butter, chocolate chunk or oatmeal raisin cookie should be.
Since it takes you at least 10 minutes to figure out what you want to order, it's helpful that you're likely to be ensconced in a large, soft leather booth, surrounded by dark, heavy wood. Looking out, you see a floor running with straight stripes of cream, brown and black, ending at a wall brightly painted with a mural homage to the grain grower. Two small, random-seeming chandeliers bookend a row of garage doors that divides a back third of the restaurant for private dining, while the other end boasts a neon-lit bar, with more dark wood.
It's a hell of a place to grab a beer, and grab a beer you should.
Over the years, the restaurant has earned more than 25 medals at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and two of those stalwarts are available for tasting: BJ's Jeremiah Red, a winner in '96, and the Piranha Pale Ale, winner in '02. The red is lightly sweet, with a nice hops/malt balance, and the caramel-colored ale is soapy and delicious. Also good is the Nutty Brewnette brown, the chocolaty and dry BJ's P.M. Porter, the sweet and complex Tatonka Stout, the spiced and ester-y Harvest Hefeweizen, and the pumpkin-pie-incarnate, limited-release Pumpkin Ale. The Lightswitch Lager is unfortunately reminiscent of Miller Lite, and the Brewhouse Blonde is pretty average.
So enjoy the beer and the brain-button-pushing bites. You're not supporting local farmers, you're not keeping your money in the community, but depending on what you get at the lively restaurant, you may not care so much.