Hop on Over 

The beer's bland but the food's plentiful and tasty enough at Hops

I was all hopped up to visit Hops again. I had eaten there a few times when it first came to town, but nothing intrigued me enough to keep me coming back. Word through the grapevine lately said the food was good and it was worth a trip. I had my doubts, but off we went.

Hops is sort of a symbol for the large chain restaurants expanding into the Springs. The things they do well, they do very well, but it's hard to stand out when you're trying to appeal to everyone. This is definitely the kind of place to go if you have a group with a vegetarian, a meat-and-potatoes person, someone who wants fish, someone else who wants Italian, and some poor soul who just wants a salad. The appetizers alone roam all over the globe, from seared ahi tuna, fried calamari and wings to nachos, Asian dumplings and artichoke pizza.

It's been my misfortune, on most of my visits to Hops, to get a brand-new server who forgets part of the order, brings the wrong salad dressing, brings the salad along with the entree instead of before, or spends 10 minutes explaining why his night is so rough. I'm not heartless, but neither do I really care why his day is bad. I'm a firm follower of Julia Child's edict: Always apologize; never explain. A simple, "Sorry folks, I'm new and I got swamped" goes a lot further than a detailed explanation.

Because Hops does brag about having a brewery on the premises, I'll address the beer before the food. The flavor is fine, but extremely understated. We skipped the Clearwater Light and the lager-style Lightning Bold Gold, and went straight for Thoroughbred Red, billed as a classic American amber, and Alligator Ale, the "dark" beer. Both have good flavor, but if you are accustomed to other microbrews, you will find them to be weak. Fresh beer usually has an advantage over beer that has been shipped many miles, but in this case, proximity of the brewing kegs doesn't add much. The freshly brewed root beer, however, is a completely different story. It's full of flavor, snappy and sharp, not bland and oversweet like most of what you buy at your local convenience store.

The food fares better than the beer. The bottomless chips and salsa are the best bargain on the appetizer menu, since they'll keep refilling your basket with large, fresh chips as long as you like. The salsa is fresh-tasting and very spicy. The Caesar salad, available plain or with chicken, shrimp or tuna, is perfectly acceptable. The Romaine is crisp and very fresh, with crunchy croutons and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

The burgers are definitely a strength here, and the same care goes into the kiddie burgers as the larger sizes. They have a nice, beefy flavor, not too greasy, and all are served on a toasted egg bun that stands up to the pile of toppings. The barbeque burger shoulders jack and cheddar cheeses, along with smoked bacon, red onions and barbeque sauce. The California burger is topped with jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions, sour cream, smoked bacon and Hops sauce. The smothered chicken sandwich comes on the same bun, and they do an excellent job here as well. Boneless chicken breast is grilled perfectly so that it's still juicy and tender, not dry and tough. It's tasty with a lively and tangy barbeque sauce, then topped with jack cheese, smoked bacon, dill pickle, tomato, lettuce and a thankfully small swirl of mayo to hold it all together.

Some meals come with specific side dishes, but others allow you a choice between a loaded baked potato, mashed potatoes, fresh steamed veggies, black beans with yellow rice, coleslaw or french fries. I admit I was surprised to find the steamed asparagus perfectly prepared, still firm and crisp, not limp at all and not drowning in butter. The coleslaw is good, nothing weird, and the french fries come the way I like them, thin and crispy. The black beans with yellow rice are also good, the beans with a warm, slow-cooked flavor served over perfectly cooked rice.

We tried the fresh catch one day, salmon, and it was excellent. It was just lightly seasoned and grilled, still very moist and tender. The Eggplant Italia is pretty much what you'd expect, marinara sauce and bogs of cheese, no taste surprises. The Roasted Garlic Shrimp Linguine came piping hot, with enough pasta for two people, topped with a roasted garlic cream sauce that's rich and smooth without being unctuous. The grilled shrimp on top were tender and juicy, not seasoned so heavily as to overwhelm the flavor of the shrimp itself. You can also get this dish with traditional marinara sauce, if you prefer.

Hops has settled comfortably into its spot on Academy across from the Citadel Mall. I predict it will have a long and happy life there, whether I like the beer or not.


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