Photo by Joy BastWe're told by our friendly server at Taps Fish House and Brewery that the place is not named for the traditional military dirge. But from where we sit—a spacious corner booth in Brea's newest eatery—it would be an unlikely connection anyhow: Taps is positively alive, already generating longish waits, leaving crowds hanging around outside an hour and longer.
For years, B.J.'s Pizza Brewery &Grill—a favorite of frat boys, families and first dates—was the only game in restaurant-hungry Brea, a city that makes Ethiopia look like the culinary equivalent of San Francisco. But soon, even hardcore B.J.'s fans are likely to discover Taps' full bar, eclectic menu (featuring not only seafood and chops, but also steak, chicken, pizza, pasta, sandwiches and vegetarian dishes), immense oyster bar and microbrewery. The place has got everything—all in a handsome, red-brick building at the fore of Brea's spanking-new Birch Street Promenade.
Fred Manzella, who owns the restaurant with his daughter Michelle and son Joe, said the restaurant was originally set to open in South County, which would have been okay. Although a bit lower on the swank-o-meter, Taps is very much like restaurants more commonly found down south, and it would have held its own with rooms like Morton's or Maggiano's. Fortunately, this was not to be, which is a bonus all around not only because Brea is desperately fine-dining-deficient, but also because lumping an outstanding place like Taps with those joints just wouldn't be right.
We went a bit nuts on our most recent visit, holding court in the corner while superdeluxe servers Scott and Nicole fielded our myriad questions and kept the food coming for three hours. We gorged ourselves with abandon, enthusiastically forking morsels off one another's plates the way you do when everyone's dish looks as good as your own. At the risk of sounding like a complete food rube, I have to admit that chef Ro Fernandez's appetizers didn't do much to dispel my increasing confusion about the paradoxical concept of appetizers—which still brings to mind the old South Park joke about appetizers being food served before your meal to make you hungrier. Make no mistake—they were great. We ordered two: a tropical shrimp quesadilla, which was a pizza-cut thing brimming with shrimp and all manner of spicy, crunchy veggies paired with a tandoori dipping sauce, and an order of French Quarter Egg Rolls, which were crispy little open-ended pillows filled with a zesty combination of chicken, sausage and cheese.
The appetizers didn't make us hungrier, but they did somehow leave us wanting more. As the sole seafood eater in the bunch, I got Fernandez's delicate, never-greasy catfish all to myself while my compadres supped on a smoked turkey club sandwich; a light chicken caesar; a towering, El Capitan-sized double pork chop; and something called Black Magic Fettucine. The chop came with killer mashed potatoes—one of, oh, four kinds on the menu ("Who doesn't like mashed potatoes?" asks Fernandez).
Sadly, Taps' microbrewery wasn't yet up and running, but brew master Victor Novak (whose beer expertise is almost frightening) told us that within hours, seven beers will be offered from a regular rotation of about 35 handcrafted lagers and ales produced throughout the year. What's more, Fernandez and Novak intend to include a number of featured food and beer pairings.
Desserts? Don't get me started, lest my descriptions bulge (like my stomach) with still more superlatives. In the interest of a balanced review, I'll issue Taps' only conceivable downside, which is the crowd already beating a path; if you can make a reservation (and you can), then do. But if you show up without one and don't want to wait, make an ironclad plan to return, and then head to South County—there ought to be a table there.
Taps Fish House and Brewery, located at 101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, is open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 257-0101. Dinner for two, $25-$35, food only. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.
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