Merrill Shindler's
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Merrill Shindler is editor of the Zagat Los Angeles Restaurant Survey, host of Feed Your Face on KABC Radio, and author of “American Dish” and the “El Cholo Cookbook.” He's from the Bronx, where he was raised on deli, pizza and Chinese on Sunday nights. He firmly believes that ketchup is nature's most perfect food.
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THE YARD HOUSE
THE YARD HOUSE ( Yard House, San Gabriel )

In part, the success of the Yard House is predicated on its massive beer selection – for a suds lover like me, it's akin to having died and gone to brew heaven. But the food is good too. In fact, it's very good. Which runs wholly contrary to the way things are supposed to be. The rule of thumb has long been that the more beers a place serves, the less palatable the chow. The reason for this is simple: The point is to serve beer and lots of it. If the food is greasy and salty (two of my favorite flavors!), it inspires the consumption of suds in mass quantities.

Based on that rule of thumb, you'd expect the menu at the Yard House to be a hothouse of deep fried this and that – the realm of armadillo eggs and stuffed potato skins in excelsis. And yet, that is not the case, not even close. For although you can find such beer house favorites as wings (done three ways) on the menu, for the most part this is fine dining, done casually. Or perhaps casual dining, done fine. However it is, it's good.

The various branches of The Yard House tend to be sprawling establishments, with large outdoor patios that overflow no matter what the temperature. The interior is of the manly persuasion, with lots of wood, glass and overhead TV sets, and plenty of noise. Actually, the view is mostly of the bar, which claims to be home to "The World's Largest Selection of Draft Beer" – running around 175, depending on what's on stock and what's out.

For those who like their brew, and who have a penchant for suds on tap, this is about as good as it gets, with more darned beers than you can shake a yard of ale at – which is one of the signatures of the place. Beer is sold in normal pints, along with yards and half yards – long glass tubes that are tricky to handle, and not easy to drink from. (The fee for breaking a full yard is $20, and $10 for a half yard, which does much from dissuading a butterfingers like me from ordering them. That, and the fact that I've got to drive home afterwards.)

The selection of drafts is an exercise in colorful excess, ranging from the standard-issue (Bud, Coors, Michelob and Miller) to the wholly arcane (Lost Coast Apricot Wheat, Young's Chocolate Stout, Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale). Myself, I tend to linger around the middle of the pack, luxuriating in the pleasures of having more than one type of Anchor Steam to choose from (along with the original, there's Anchor Porter and Anchor Liberty Ale), and happy to consume draft Beck's, draft Bitburger and draft Pilsner Urquell. (When they have it, I also order the wonderfully named Spaten Optimator Dopplebock, which sounds like something Governor Arnuld drinks in quantity.)

One of the darker secrets of my culinary life is that I prefer beer to wine. There's a decent wine list here, but none of it seems as interesting as a schooner of Pete's Strawberry Blonde. Ditto the temptations of the (long) martini list. I'm sure there's an audience out there somewhere for a Key Lime Pie Martini, a Vanilla Cheesecake Martini, and a Bikini Tini – me, I'll for a cold glass of Firestone Double Barrel or Rogue Hazelnut Brown.

In terms of the food, it deserves serious attention. If definition is needed, I'd say this place was a California Steakhouse, which is to say that there's top sirloin, grilled ribeye, grilled New York and pepper-crusted filet, along with a wide selection of culinary eclecticism. As befits a good steakhouse, there's a clam chowder that tends to be a tad too thick, but otherwise is finely flavored with a good smattering of clam bellies within. (Might I suggest a splash of McIlhenny Tabasco to give it a sense of lightning in a bowl; Tabasco and clam chowder are a marriage that was made to last.)

There's an iceberg salad, just like they used to serve at the swell places back in the oldie time – a wedge of iceberg with tomato, red onion and bleu cheese dressing liberally slathered upon. There's a textbook roast turkey club, with avo, Swiss and applewood bacon that crunches like the hammer of the gods comin' on down. There's a hot pastrami sandwich with pickled peppers, a cool touch, though a sandwich that's hard to say ten times fast (“pastrami with pickled peppers”). The pizzas rang from mozzarella and tomato on one end, to spicy Thai chicken on the other, suitably crisp, properly encumbered with stuff.

But more than classic Americana, there's a zippy taste here for madcap Californian. I really like the salad of seared ahi, greens and wontons crisps in a soy dressing, which isn't so much a salad as a tossed ahi entree. They don't do a plain Caesar here – your choice is Caesar with grilled shrimp, seared ahi and grilled chicken. Even the cheeseburger is tricked up with garlic aioli, and the BLT with portobello mushrooms.

A fine feed can be assembled from the sundry appetizers – try the Hawaiian poke stack, the ahi sashimi (seared and flavored with Chinese seven-spice), the Korean sweet ribs (which, with its brown sugar glaze, can be viewed as a high protein dessert), the trio of wings (Jamaican jerk, kind of sweet firecracker, and downhome Buffalo). Oddly, there are garlic noodles listed as an appetizer, further flavored with butter and shiitake mushrooms. I don't know about you, hoss, but that sounds like an entree to me. Tastes like one too.

The garlic noodles reappear as a full-fledged entree under the heading of "Pasta and Rice Bowls," where they're further mixed with lobster, shrimp, crab and spinach. I don't quite get the appeal of beer and pasta, unless you're carbo-loading for a triathlon. Yet it apparently works, for there are half a dozen dishes under this heading, including a shrimp rice bowl with Chinese vegetables, and an angel hair pasta dish given depth with the addition of feta cheese.

For those who need more serious food, there's the section titled "House Favorites." They include a workmanlike order of fish 'n chips, crunchy hunklets of Icelandic cod served with fries and tartar sauce (ask for malt vinegar as well, to give it a British snap). There are a trio of dishes that wouldn't be out of place at PF Chang's – orange peel chicken, kung pao calamari and maui-maui chicken (they come with macadamia nuts; I like chicken, I like nuts, but I don't like chicken with nuts).

There's a fine BBQ pork tenderloin, but oddly no BBQ ribs (which go so well with beer). There's a good miso glazed halibut, making normally blasé halibut into a fish worth eating. And, there are touches of unexpected fanciness – as in the crab-crusted swordfish with a lemongrass beurre blanc. Now, does that go best with some Newcastle Brown, or is it Humboldt Hemp that will do the trick? Or is any beer right, as long as it's cold.

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