211028HOPHAUS

The beers, burgers and other fare at Hop Haus’s newer Fitchburg location proved a delight, but Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin found the stellar service to be equally appetizing.

FITCHBURG

When you visit a brewery, you more or less know in advance that the beer is going to be worth the trip.

The food options you might find? That can be a very different story.

Some breweries just serve prefab bagged snacks and frozen pizza—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Others take halfhearted stabs at a few basic entrees and appetizers. Again, that’s OK—because you’re really here for the beer.

Hop Haus Brewery, the purveyors of familiar Wisconsin beers such as their signature Plaid Panther Scotch Ale, split the difference.

If you visit the Verona location, which has been open for a few years now, you’ll certainly find the former. But if you visit the sizable Fitchburg location that opened just last year, you’ll find the trip far more worthwhile.

The menu at the Verona location leads with Fraboni’s pizzas—which are local, yes, but still prefab and not especially complicated.

The menu at the Fitchburg location, buoyed by its much larger kitchen space, includes much more. Think burgers, tacos, sandwiches and more than a few things that will make you go mmm.

If there are cheese curds on the menu at a brewpub, it’s a requirement to try them—and Hop Haus’s qualify as solid. They’re shaped like miniature torpedoes with a thick, crispy crust that ensures the gooey cheese inside isn’t making any unexpected jailbreaks.

While the curds are good on their own, it’s the dipping sauce that elevates the experience. Or rather, one of the sauces. A house-made herb dressing is no better or worse than your basic ranch, but when the beer gets involved, watch out. A habanero-spiced sauce with Plaid Panther Scotch ale is both smooth and sneakily spicy. You might even want to save some of it to add to one of Hop Haus’s sandwiches, should your order tilt that way.

We opted for the burger route. More specifically, the Hop Haus Burger ($13), one of only two burgers on offer.

The ground beef is delicious, juicy and grilled just right. Some of the ingredients, such as the grilled onions seared in Hop Haus’s Sweet Sunglasses Blonde Ale, didn’t add as much to the party as expected.

The burger comes with provolone cheese, but the cheese’s pungent taste scuffles with the onions and horseradish sauce. (It might be better swapped out for a milder cheddar.) You can add an over-easy egg to any of Hop Haus’s burgers or sandwiches for an extra buck, though I’m not sure that would improve the experience here.

Pick your sides carefully. The sweet potato waffle fries were amazing—crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, dusted with a seasoning that clung to each chip. It was a beautiful accompaniment whose appearance matched its taste.

The tater tots, however, lacked any spicing garnishment, and while they were crispy, they were also forgettable. Given what a lot of places are doing with Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite pocket snack these days, it seems like Hop Haus could amp up the creativity a little more.

Six different individual tacos dot the menu, covering meat, seafood and vegetarian options.

Going with the pork carnitas ($4) proved a fantastic choice. Between a habanero crème sauce that fueled but didn’t overwhelm the meat, and kernels of corn dusted with a habanero pepper, the taco had a just-right level of heat to it. It’s nice that Hop Haus has selected a range of options that covers popular bases without overwhelming anything or stretching things too thin.

There is a fish fry, but it’s only available on Fridays. It’s modest (cod or perch for $14 and $17 respectively) yet hugely popular here, and on a recent Friday, patrons were hitting it hard.

The perch, fried in a crispy panko crust that hardened and clung to the fish like a second skin, was mildly spiced, easy to eat and quite delicious. It was tasty enough to encourage a return trip to try the beer-battered cod.

Even with several sizable groups in the house and enjoying the sun on the patio, Hop Haus was staffed well enough to handle it. That’s notable at a time where nearly every restaurant is struggling to retain employees. Our server was new, but the food and beer flights appeared efficiently after we ordered them.

Hop Haus’s craft beer list is heavy on the IPAs—not surprising, given current beer trends—and there’s no shortage of options worth exploring. The Magic Dragon Double IPA is the flagship, uber-hoppy and citrus-tinged, but I also grooved on the slightly less bitter GroupText IPA, one of Hop Haus’s new seasonal beers.

Whatever you end up loving, there are growlers and six-packs available to pick up right near the door.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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