Anna Jean Peterson
In describing to friends how the new Ale Asylum tasting room on Pankratz Street is already flourishing, I joked that it's come a long way from the house-frozen pizzas of its former location on Anderson Street. (House-frozen, oddly enough, has yet to become a foodie totem like house-cured or house-smoked.)
Yes, there are still pizzas, but they're never frozen - and they're almost entirely beside the point. The focused menu of appetizers, four salads and six sandwiches would almost qualify the tasting room as a gastropub, if not a full-fledged restaurant. However, Ale Asylum's owners have resisted that, refusing to promote the place as anything but a humble brewery.
Since it opened in mid-September, the massive brewery and adjoining tasting room have settled in nicely. I recognized an experienced server or two from other area establishments, and the beer menu is unimpeachable. A mile from the city limits and the Dane County Regional Airport, Ale Asylum has become a destination. And there are menus and servers and everything. It's a restaurant.
So, okay, let's pretend for a second that it's not a restaurant, and that you're just going there for the beer. No one would blame you. Hopalicious is a fine IPA, worthy of its wildfire success (and listed on the appetizer menu at "market price"). Mercy is a sweet Belgian strong ale that packs all the boozy wallop its style would suggest. Contorter Porter is a favorite of mine, with a thin, chocolatey body that gives way to subtle licorice notes...when paired with the right food.
Co-owner Otto Dilba has said he'd prefer seeing Ale Asylum's tasting room empty, in favor of customers drinking Ale Asylum beers at the many other establishments that serve it - an honorable sentiment. But Dilba and company also must have felt that they had something to offer beyond a healthy pint, and have put together a menu to fully complement their beers.
Ale Asylum makes a respectable percentage of the items in-house. The menu tiptoes along the southern border of the United States. The salsa is fresh, and the crisp rainbow slaw is smartly constructed with multiple colors of sweet bell pepper.
The shrimp burger is house-pattied, and the sandwich is served open. That highlights the handsome caramelization on the shrimp and keeps the roasted poblano mayo cool until the last possible moment. (Let it never be forgotten that the McDLT introduced some good ideas.) Pulled house-roasted pork makes the Cuban sandwich a success, but the exceptional dill pickles make it shine. I never did ask if they were house-pickled, but they taste great. For a good Cuban, I can live with not knowing.
A spinach salad bears the weight of plenty of goat cheese, walnuts and sliced grilled steak, though ranch dressing is a disappointing accompaniment. It's still tasty and worth the price. Even more of a bargain are the queso blanco nachos; get them with the optional pulled-pork verde. For $10, it's enough to feed three.
Garlic cheese sticks are exactly the kind of starter you'd expect from a non-restaurant bar-type place, but these are slightly better than charmingly low-brow; it's the base layer of Alfredo sauce. The vegetable quesadilla employs black beans and pepperoncinis to become something more interesting than the average cheesy tortilla.
The chips and salsa that come as the default side dish are good, but the soups are pretty special, too. A tomato bisque was rich and full of chunky tomato goodness. New England-style clam chowder could have been a small meal on its own. As with all the soups, it is house...souped. Ladled. It's made in-house.
Not made in-house? Those pizzas, courtesy of Falbo Brothers. Ale Asylum promises they're fresh, never frozen. My #4 - chorizo, black beans, corn and garlic with a side of spicy and (yes) house-made tomatillo-avocado sauce - was cooked to an ideal crunch of crust and stretch of cheese.
And even if the spicy black bean burger - which neatly avoids the mushiness of most vegetarian patties and comes with a house chipotle mayo - is from Kellogg's Morningstar Farms, it's still prepared in a capable way that respects the diner.
But this non-restaurant kitchen, with its non-chef kitchen manager, has already shown me that it can do much more than heat-and-serve prefab, so why wouldn't I go all in for the full Ale Asylum experience?