The Beer Train west from Philadelphia has long been an open secret among drinkers. The thirsty journey starts with a frosty pint at Bridgewater's Pub in 30th Street Station and then rolls west on the Paoli-Thorndale Line out to Tired Hands in Ardmore, followed by Wayne's brew stars (Teresa's Next Door, the Beeryard), and several other stops along the way (Exton's World of Beer has 550 choices), finally chugging out to Downingtown for the Station Taproom and original Victory brewpub.
Well, you can add a worthy new stop to that route with La Cabra, a brewpub with a Latin twist perched across Lancaster Avenue from the Berwyn station behind roll-up cafe windows and the 130-year-old stone walls of a onetime grist mill.
If the name sounds vaguely familiar (La Cabra means "the goat"), it's possible you heard the legend of its old mailing list, which then-homebrewer Dan Popernack would use to announce the latest release of his bretty barrel-aged experiments. The aging room? His garage near the Malvern school where he used to teach Spanish. The price? Zilch, as he wasn't a licensed brewery. These were free R&D tests for his brewpub dream.
I was on that mailing list but never managed to weasel my way into the inner circle of 15 stalwarts who snagged one of his limited batches. So imagine my excitement at Popernack's pro debut - and the disappointment at finding no barrel-aged ales yet ready to be served at the four-month-old La Cabra. Those brews, which likely will start being released in spring, are still funkifying in the basement cellar of the old building, once also a butcher shop.
But there was already more than enough to like about this bright new entry on the ever-growing brewpub scene, from the airy bi-level space full of wood, stone, and a second-floor fireplace, to a baker's dozen of diverse beers on tap, and a gastropub menu that has distinctive character and good ideas (locally sourced ingredients, ambitious scratch cooking), even if it sometimes could use more polish.
First the beers. While Popernack's wild ales age, he's been showing off his skill with some more familiar classic styles, and adding little twists. A dose of green tea adds herbal notes to a petite saison called Nido. The richness of local malt from Deer Creek anchors the banana-clove yeastiness of a hearty brown weizenbock called Bantlers. Another variety of Deer Creek malt lends a vivid honeydew melon note to a pale ale called Beauregard. I loved the natural fruitiness in the Belgian pale ale Belma. A few offerings impressed me less - a deliberate amber tint to the usually refreshing lightness of a kölsch, too much rosemary in the Juno, a cask presentation for an IPA that was just too bitter.
But, for the most part, these brews had a personality I appreciated. So did executive chef John Hearn's menu. Hearn, 28, a Delco native who's cooked at the General Warren Inne and Lucien's Manor as a wedding caterer, has little experience with Latin cooking, and it shows. Who fries a steamy soft tamale and then buries it in jerk chicken topped with crispy onions topped with crumbled bacon?
Authentic Latino cooking is not La Cabra's M.O. The theme inspired by Popernack's travels through Latin America and Spain is simply meant to give some focus and character to the bar's largely affordable menu, where the main dishes run $9 to $19. The value is in the satisfaction of some fun food. But liberties are to be expected.
Hearn is also still in the young-chef phase that operates under the theory that piles of crunchier (usually with bacon) are always better. I don't subscribe to that school. But what matters most here is that Hearn's building blocks are good, his ingredients are sourced from small farms, and they are usually cooked with care, from the house-cured pork belly and jalapeño bacon to the duck confit that comes scattered over fries served poutine-style beneath flows of duck Bordelaise gravy and a creamy cheese sauce piqued with Spanish Manchego.
The ducks come from Willow Springs farm in Pennsylvania, and they're fed with spent grain from La Cabra's brewing. That lends a unique full-circle savor to the pink slices of hickory-smoked duck breast that come draped over homemade pierogi plumped with foie gras pâté, more duck liver, caramelized onions, and mushrooms. A spark of adobo oil loops this indulgent appetizer back on theme.
The pork belly is also one of La Cabra's better starters, cooked tender for 12 hours sous-vide with the amber kölsch, then crisped to order beneath goat cheese, frisee, a blood orange aioli, and, yes, bacon. The sous-vide machine gets more smart use in the small kitchen, slow-cooking wings in butter before they get dunked in an additively spicy-sweet honey chipotle.
House chorizo and crispy prosciutto came with blackened shrimp and grits, which were excellent despite the odd tropical garnish of mango chutney. A nice hunk of flank steak is also vacuum-cooked, so it retains a perfect medium-rare pink before it's seared with a nice crust to order over fingerlings and a bright chimichurri. It's a very fair value at $19. So is the blackened salmon over mushroom risotto for $17, though, once again . . . someone couldn't resist topping that fish with bacon.
Those kind of prices ensure La Cabra isn't just a beer geek's destination but has the makings of a good neighborhood restaurant. And some of the best plates are less expensive, like the $13 Cubano sandwich, a toasty round ode to pig that layers house-smoked pulled pork over house-cured lonzino pork loin, with pickles, ham, and Manchego sauce.
The tacos are basic but hearty and flavorful, with pliant corn tortillas that come with toppings ranging from pulled pork lightly Mexicanized by a salsa, a fish taco with some juicy blackened mahi and mango chutney, and tender jerk chicken.
A flash-fried empanada with maitake mushrooms and black beans is one tasty vegetarian option on the predominantly meat-centric menu. A bolder stab at veggie glory - the "Herbivorous" burger made with brewer's grains packed into a patty of black beans and potatoes - was a mush burger crushed with a fried plantain.
Some dishes were far closer to success, save for one detail. The seared-tuna "Surf & Earth" salad with pecan-studded couscous would have been fantastic if it had not been served on a plate so narrow that food went flying onto the table every time I moved my fork. I also admired the ambition behind "Hunter Gatherer," a Willow Spring quail stuffed with the house chorizo over a six-grain pilaf. But someone had incinerated the bird before plating.
A torch was put to much better use with La Cabra's solo dessert, a crème brûlée vividly infused with corn ringed by a spicy-sweet syrup, and topped with a biscotto made from malted brewer's grain. It's dense, delicious, and reminiscent of a granola bar, which makes for a nice next-day breakfast. Perfect to gnaw on during the trip back to Philly on the Beer Train.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the new Friday Saturday Sunday near Rittenhouse Square.