Descending the steps into the subterranean lair that is the Copper Door in SanTana, we felt as though Monstro the Whale were swallowing us. And when we passed through the doorway and entered the belly of the beast, we found ourselves in a dark room as wide as it was deep. Down the center stood a communal table made of thick wood, long enough for a rowdy Viking feast.
To the right was the bar. To the left, more seating and red-felted pool tables for rent. At the far end, a stage housed a band setting up for that night's performance. All around, placed at strategic spots, industrial-size fans whirred at full blast to keep the air moving. Since the walls were all painted black and only a few dangling bare light bulbs illuminated the entire space, it felt as though it were already past midnight inside–even at 7 p.m.
The Copper Door is a beer bar/underground club/music hall, the kind you'd find in Manhattan, seemingly on every other block, always down a flight of stairs, just below street level–that is, if you knew where to find it. It's in this kind of place where the next Ramones could play their first set. Opened in 2010, almost directly underneath Chapter One, it served just beer with its no-cover-charge music acts for some years. This past summer, though, it finally hired a chef and put him to work in a lonely room off to the side. Yet, what's offered here now must be described as bar food, with mostly bread-based apps, sliders and pizzas–all served until the place closes at 2 a.m. While it's better than the usual onion rings and hot wings, its purpose is still the same: to sustain you through the night and absorb the alcohol. But if you come during dinner, before the music starts, the more substantial meals from the lunch menu are available.
Among the best of these is a stuffed Italian pizza burger, in which the chef cooks a thick ground-beef patty, gilds it with cheese, then adds a few slices of spicy pepperoni and tops that with the chopped tomato-basil-and-parmesan mix he also uses for the bruschetta. It's a substantial sandwich, a two-fisted affair with a cold bun as its only fault. It would've trumped the Philly cheesesteak in girth if the cheesesteak weren't generously stuffed with thinly sliced sirloin, onions, peppers, mushrooms, provolone, and some misplaced lettuce and tomatoes. But the most impressive part about the cheesesteak is the addition of beer-cheese fondue–liquid gold, as far as I'm concerned, and a significant upgrade from traditional Cheez Whiz. In fact, we liked the sauce so much we ordered the fondue by itself as an appetizer.
"It's made with sharp Cheddar, stout beer, garlic, rosemary, sage and a German cheese I can't pronounce," I heard our bearded server tell my friend as he placed the bowl of cheesy sauce on the table. It's surrounded with toasted ciabatta slices for dipping, but as with the pretzel platter, the dish was beer fodder–starch and fat and salt to go with the swigs of lager we ordered earlier. It did particularly well to answer the bitter coffee finish of the thick mocha stout I was then slowing sipping.
We would try more beer and more food that night. At one point, I asked our barman for a dry cider and discovered there were no food this champagne-like liquid didn't complement. I used it to chase the seven types of sliders offered. And yes, we ordered them all. There was an alligator sausage slider on a blue cheese-slathered ciabatta roll that wasn't as gamy as our server warned us it would be; a pulled pork slider on brioche went down too quickly. A Cheddar burger slider with a thin, onion-flecked sizzled patty as good as White Castle's was the best of all. The most substantial slider had to be the caprese: at least two repeating layers of tomato, mozzarella and basil. The most thoughtful was the one with sautéed mushrooms. The weakest was the prosciutto, too easily overpowered by thickly sliced raw onions. There's also a slider named after Elvis that's as close as you get to dessert here. It, of course, featured peanut butter and banana, but also bacon.
There would also be pizzas ranging from a basic Margherita to one with more of that alligator sausage. We ordered the latter because our bartender said it was his favorite. Then, at some point, the band started playing, people started arriving, and our attention switched from our plates to what was happening onstage and all around us–and that, I think, is the whole point of coming.
The Copper Door, 225 1/2 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3813; www.thecopperdoorbar.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat., 7 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $12-$30, food only. Beer.