Photo by Joy BastMy first encounter with Gordon Biersch came, oddly enough, at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. While baseball pundits praised Pacific Bell Park's retro chic, the buzz I heard in the city was about French fries. Garlic French fries. If you went to a game, you simply had to eat them.

Gordon Biersch makes these fries, and despite the county-fair food scene at the stadium, they weren't hard to find. I could smell the concession stand serving garlic fries 20 yards away. And the hype was founded on fact: these fries were awesome, rich with pungent minced garlic that begged for more Sierra Nevada ale. Knowing Gordon Biersch had a couple of brewpub restaurants in Orange County, I made a mental note to stop by one when I got home.

It took a year before I did. I had pretty much burned out on the brewpub experience. So many had come and gone when brewpubs were hot property during the '90s that they blended into one indistinguishable, trendy mash. Despite San Francisco, I had no enthusiasm to try a new one.

But Gordon Biersch is different. Their beer is rock-solid, German-style brew, free of all the cute touches and fruity flavors I've come to loathe at other brewpubs. And Gordon Biersch is even better as a restaurant.

At a glance, its menu follows the brewpub formula—a mess of appetizers (including, of course, chicken wings), salads, pizzas, pastas, thick burgers and meat-heavy main dishes. But the preparation of these items shows distinctive culinary care and, dare I say, real innovation.

No standard buffalo wings here; they're made with a sweet chile-and-ginger glaze. Among the other appetizers, the sublime flavors of the shrimp and chicken potstickers and the spicy smoked salmon hand rolls with radish sprouts and pickled ginger really stand out. And I couldn't get enough of the baby back ribs slathered in a tangy mrzen barbecue sauce. It seems the chefs who crafted these treats are well-versed in Asian-fusion cooking, giving new life to what had seemed an exhausted cuisine.

I'll leave the salads, pizzas and pastas to another day because when you come to a place like this, why bother? The main dishes are the way to go, and with 10 distinctive entres, there's bound to be something to pique your interest—like the seafood. The barbecued salmon comes with grilled red onions (an interesting choice that completely works) and a ginger-infused rice. The very peppery ahi tuna is topped with a tasty tomato chutney with Chinese cabbage (think funky slaw) and the same ginger rice on the side. Both hit the bull's-eye.

But me, I go for the big meat dishes, whether it be one of the three thick steaks—the New York steak features an alluring homemade steak sauce and melt-in-your-mouth onion rings—or the chunky meatloaf topped with a coarse beer-mustard gravy that tastes a lot better than it sounds. All of these come with a massive dollop of mashed potatoes shot through with a nasal-clearing measure of garlic.

The best is the pork chop, a ridiculously thick, roasted cut that approaches perfection. The slightly fatty chop is perfectly juicy and topped with a creamy Gorgonzola gravy, which adds a nice sharp flavor to each bite. Topping out this pseudo-Teutonic feast is a side dish of sweet, braised red cabbage.

Of course, with all this good food comes beer. Gordon Biersch's four standard brews follow a German purity law called Reinheitsgebot, which ensures clean, direct flavors free of detritus. Hey, the Germans have been doing it this way for almost 600 years, so who's to complain? The best of a strong lot is the intense blonde bock, which, despite the Barbie-sounding name, is a dark, smooth brew with a rich, malty flavor. Another popular one rarely found in brewpubs is the mrzen, a mild auburn lager that has been the staple of Oktoberfest for centuries. I've come to like these beers so much that I go out of my way to find them in the more upscale liquor stores.

These beers go great with the famous garlic fries, which I like best served with their basic burger. Like I've said, these fries are exceptional, but heed this warning—order them on a date, and you'll go home lonely. A foul metamorphosis occurs soon after ingesting them, a garlic funk oozing from every pore and rendering even the curiously strongest breath mint impotent.

Perhaps these garlic fries are a key reason the Giants have one of the best home records in baseball. If the wind is blowing right, the corrosive fumes emitted by 40,000 garlic-nibbling fans could wipe out any visiting team.

Gordon Biersch, located at 24032 El Toro Rd., Laguna Hills, is open Sun.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Thurs.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. (949) 770-0123. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25-$60, food only. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.


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