Congregation Ale House: Eat, Pray, Glug

When ordering the rib-eye burger at Congregation Ale House, don't expect anything massively portioned or customizable. This isn't that kind of burger. It doesn't drip with too much sauce, there is no option for bacon, and it fits snugly inside one hand since it's only a few cup sizes bigger than a slider. Yet you should cradle this burger in both palms; treat it as a two-fisted ground-beef sandwich that demands your full attention. Half-cuffed in paper to bind it together and to capture any escaping juices, it's a good-looking burger, with a roasted tomato peeking out, slippery grilled onions attempting to escape and arugula that somehow manages to class it up a bit.

It is well-constructed and thought-through, the bun having as much integrity as an English muffin. The edges are burnt to a toasted crisp; the white Cheddar cheese has melted so fully onto the finger-thick patty that it's practically been absorbed. You inhale the thing in seconds, chasing it with a beer that you picked from a blackboard menu, which is larger than the one for the food. You had ordered it by standing in line with the rest of the patrons, paying on the spot and getting a numbered placard to display on your table as though you were at Carl's Jr.—wait, what?

Congregation, which is part of a mini-chain of beer bars, with other “chapters” in Azusa and Pasadena, has a church theme, but it's done with just enough tongue-in-cheekiness that it bypasses blasphemy and becomes nothing more than good-natured satire. A “collection box” next to the register is actually the tip jar. Happy Hours are called “Mass,” with a late-night one called “Midnight Mass.” And flitting about the room in fetishistic Catholic-schoolgirl uniforms, their pleated skirts hitched up scandalously far above the knee, are servers who'll offer to top off your soda. But if it's water you want, you need to get it yourself from a “Holy Water” station.

Religious kidding aside, Congregation is all business. It's downright liturgical in charging only $7 to $8 for the holy trinity of foods that go well with beer: sausage sandwiches, burgers and pizza. This place understands that those willing to queue up to order food in a bar such as this aren't interested in anything fancier than what they can hold in their hands or eat with their fingers. The sausages are labeled “exotic” because there isn't a hot dog in the bunch. The knife-scored bratwurst is roasted until the snappy casing nearly bursts. Adorned with grilled onions and peppers, it's laid down not on a hot dog bun or a roll, but rather a thick, halfway-folded flatbread that actually complements the sausage the same way a plain cracker highlights a piece of fine cheese—without drawing attention to itself. Or you could opt for a sausage platter, for which a duck-and-bacon sausage and a pork-and-goat-cheese link are cut into coins and speared on toothpicks, ready to be dunked into two kinds of mustard: one beer-infused, the other sugary sweet.

But it's the Belgian fries, stubby potatoes spears cooked to the correct proportion of crunch and fluff, that become the perfect excuse to explore all the dipping sauces, especially the curry ketchup. Yes, it may be Heinz adulterated with spices, but it somehow transports your palate to a London chip shop with a side trip to a Mumbai chaat stall. Since you get two choices of sauce per order of fries, also ask for the sweet-chili sour cream, which is just bottled Thai sweet-chili sauce poured over a dollop of plain sour cream—two things that shouldn't work together but do. And if you order the chicken salad, know that it is a salad in name only. The generous amounts of grilled breast-meat cubes, artichoke hearts, goat blue cheese and roasted tomatoes will blot out the insignificant pile of arugula until it becomes little more than inconsequential garnish in a bowl as big as a wash basin. But if you want some artichoke, don't settle for what you get in that salad—have a real one, halved and roasted with salt and oil until the petals come off with a gentle tug. Dip each one in a surprisingly sharp chipotle mayo before scraping the meaty ends with your front teeth.

Since you're going to be drinking inordinate amounts of beer, it's almost sacrilegious to not have a pretzel. Once your teeth breach the crisp outer crust, the doughy twists are softly pliant. It's the most thematically appropriate item here. Did you know the shape of a pretzel symbolizes arms crossed in prayer? Cue Homer Simpson: Mmm . . . sacrilicious. . . .


This review appeared in print as “Eat, Pray, Glug: Drink beer and eat burgers with other blasphemers at Congregation Ale House in Long Beach.”

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