Memphis Taproom

A Kensington bar goes gastro with pub food and prices done right, and craft beers for anyone, near or far, who loves them.

Posted: August 03, 2008

The beer geeks can be relied upon to travel. Put a Green Flash IPA on draft, a Rogue tripel, or a Fuller's Porter, and they will come. Thirsty.

But what of the old-school locals in this working-class Kensington neighborhood who were weaned on Anheuser-Busch? Confronting that fact was among the tallest challenges Brendan Hartranft faced since opening the Memphis Taproom in the spring at the corner of Memphis and East Cumberland with nearly 50 craft beers and not a Bud in sight. (Although he does offer Miller High Life, because he likes the cool label, and the thinking man's "Lite": Lion's Head Light.)

The early online buzz that tagged the Memphis as yet another "yuppie" bar rankled Hartranft. After all, he has worked 70 hours a week with his partners and wife, Leigh Maida, to transform an aging shot-and-a-beer hall that once hosted wet-T-shirt contests into an ambitious bar and neighborhood restaurant where hipster families now flock to brunch. Yes, the chef, Jesse Kimball, used to work at tony Center City spots like Matyson and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, bringing plenty of "gastro" pedigree to this corner pub. Yes, the Italian scooters and messenger bikes parked out front have "urban gentrification" written all over them.

But the Memphis' menu of updated bar food is impressively affordable and varied, topping out at $15 for a lamb-chop special, with prices that actually compete with the nearby Applebee's. There's a worthy nod to the neighborhood's Polish tradition with the Port Richmond platter, a plate of awesomely smoked kielbasa from Czerw's on Tilton Street, cheesy pierogis, kraut, and a potato pancake. And there's also plenty to draw the area's young new residents, with a focus on local ingredients drawn from urban farm pioneer Greensgrow, just down the street, and a vegan sous chef in the kitchen, Rob Notowitz, turning out homemade seitan barbecue sandwiches and smoked walnut gravy with biscuits for brunch.

And while there is generally no dumbing down the beer list, which stretches from California (Lost Abbey Inferno) to Belgium (Petrus sour ale), Hartranft has chosen to let the quality brews do their own talking to all comers, without an ounce of added condescension. A native of Lawncrest in the Northeast, he says he understands and respects the value of this old industrial neighborhood's blue-collar dollars.

"Those guys are very discerning where they spend it," he said. "But once they do, they are loyal."

So it's no surprise that more than a few old-school regulars from the nearby Chug-a-Mug (land of the $1 ponies Sunday special) have now also become fixtures at Memphis ("This is Beer School, man!"), with preferences now leaning toward Belgian greats like the $9 Orval and $7 Duvel.

And so Philly's brew revolution goes: As gastropubs like Memphis feed the new frontiers of Philadelphia's revitalizing neighborhoods, a growing appreciation for craft beer, it seems, has become the common ground for denizens old and new.

To be sure, the arrival of new life for this weathered taproom space, which now thrums with energy day and night, would be a boon for any neighborhood. Hartranft and his partners, Paula Decker and Ken Correll, have handsomely rehabbed the former Prohibition speakeasy known as Walt's. Hand-scraped hardwood floors and olive-painted banquettes have been fitted into the back dining room. Checkerboard tile floors and a blackboard tap menu anchor the lively front bar.

It is in the kitchen, though, where the Memphis is an intriguing work in progress. With a determination to keep prices low, there are precious few vestiges of Kimball's highfalutin training.

That succulent T-bone lamb chop special, served over red bliss potato salad with fresh peas in minted butter and a habanero barbecue sauce, pretty much topped the ambition meter. Kimball's menu focuses instead on exploring regional American pub food using good fresh ingredients and no-shortcut preparations.

Good local eggs, sunny-side up over thick toast with a scarlet dusting of aleppo pepper, highlight a King Rarebit sauced with indulgent cheddar fondue infused with Old Peculier British ale. Sweet Jersey corn, roasted and steeped into a milky stock, finds its way into a hearty chowder. And the clever addition of brisket meat gave Memphis' good burgers an extra beefy punch.

This kitchen isn't shy of its deep fryer, a fact that produced some winners, but also became wearing. I loved the fried dill pickles, which sparked a nostalgia trip for my guest from southern Ohio. The spicy Vidalia onion rings were addictive. The pilsner-brined chicken wings had a stellar crisp. And the fresh "chicken-fried chicken" was a big improvement over the usual pre-frozen chicken fingers (though frankly I'd prefer chicken with bones).

But the jalapeño corn dodgers, really hush puppies, were dry and bland. The tempura-fried veggies with coconut curry dip were cooked to a nearly burnt brown. The beef pasties, which were more like empanadas, were hollowly understuffed with the tasty beer-braised shortribs.

And for a place that pays homage to vegans with such thoughtful treats as the smoked avocado-tomato sandwich (the "ALT") and a satisfying toasted barley-white bean chili with jalapeño-pickled veggies, some of Memphis' salads were a little lame. The "iceberg" salad was more of a tepid chopped salad than the brisk wedge we expected. The panzanella was more of a soggy Greek with pale croutons than the hearty bread and tomato salad I'd hoped for.

Still, these were blips alongside meals that brought unexpected highlights like a grilled hunk of fresh mahimahi with roasted asparagus, or a chilled cauliflower soup streaked with truffled honey, or an addictive brunch plate of "Tailgate" eggs scrambled chilaquiles-style with tortillas, roasted poblanos and sausage.

One thing the Memphis really should improve soon are its desserts, currently some unfortunate vegan offerings. In the meantime, the solution is easy: Order a J.W. Lees Vintage 1998, a figgy British strong ale that tastes like spiced port.

It's the kind of rare dessert brew a true beer geek might travel for. But now, lucky Kensingtonians, both old and new school, don't even have to leave the neighborhood.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Maia in Villanova. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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