That’s the sound I made when I heard a microbrewery/gastropub had opened in the Sunnyslope ‘hood in Phoenix, better known for burrito drive-thrus and dollar stores.
And then I double “whuuhed?” after peeping at North Mountain Microbrewery’s menu, which is not only unusual for the area, but eclectic for any pub. Alongside the Angus burgers and baked wings dwell fresh oysters, sashimi, pho and ginger chicken—a global jumble conceived by a chef identified as Justin Aquino on the brewery’s website.
Well, this bore checking out.
The first thing you notice about North Mountain brewery—if you ever find the back-entrance parking lot—is the owners have managed to create atmosphere in a space that technically has no atmosphere.
Concrete floors? Check. Industrial taps at the bar? Check. Glaring metal lights? You betcha. The pub is basically an empty room furnished with community tables of gleaming ebony. And yet somehow, there’s nowhere you’d rather be. The vibe is homey, folks are smiling and even strangers are exchanging convo (often about the quirky foodstuffs).
Why is this place so warm? The owners are local, and while hubby Rob Berkner focuses on brewing, wife Candy tackles the front of house, beaming with the genuineness of a true people person. She’ll remember your name and describe the dishes or beers on tap with unflagging enthusiasm—even if it’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and she’s recited the spiel more often than a presidential stump speech come October.
It’s obvious the Berkners place a lot of trust in their chef, who I didn’t know and still haven’t met, but after pumping Candy and the busy bar staff for info, I have it on shaky authority that he is of Filipino heritage, has cooked at some of the Valley’s swankiest steakhouses, and aimed to create an eclectic menu that reflected beer-food traditions from around the world. (I also heard a rumor he was a near-contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”)
My trusted dining companions and I dived into Aquino’s selection oysters first. I could have eaten a dozen of these, but at $2 each for briny Blue Points and $3 a pop for sweet Kumamotos, I had to watch my bivalve budget—a sacrifice made tougher by three clever sides: classic mignonette, mango/jalapeno relish, and the house’s garlicky cocktail compote. At happy hour, North Mountain knocks a buck off each oyster, and I’ll be bellying up then, for sho. I wish they’d do $1 Blue Points all day, every day, though, and make it a thang.
Mussels ($9) is one of those dishes I always order, hoping for the best, dreading the chewy worst. This version, tender as first kisses, delivers the goods in a basil-tinged white wine butter sauce. It’s a flavor explosion compared to the Ahi Poke ($9), an almost too-mild hill of tuna topped with mango and lulled by a smear of avocado cream over cukes. Next time, I’ll venture the Salmon Sashimi ($8), backed with grapefruit and avo.
As most local diners know, Valley chefs simultaneously discovered Brussels sprouts and kale in recent years. North Mountain features both ingredients on the seasonal starters menu. The wait staff pushed hard for the Justin Salad, so I went the sprouts route, curious to see how it paired with the Fresno peppers, cilantro and cotija. However, when I commit to eating the bitter shrunken heads of the cabbage world, I want to feel like a svelte goddess, so I was disappointed the veggies are flash-fried before slicing. The treatment gives them an interesting texture—quite chewy—and the leaves glow goblin green, but a dimension is missing. A dusting of toasted hazelnuts, for instance, might work wonders.
Just Pho Variety
We raised a skeptical eyebrow at the BBQ Chicken Flatbread ($12), suspecting the blend of cilantro pesto, mozzarella, and sweet barbecue sauce would defile the mouth and haunt the senses. But it works brilliantly! My brah-in-law picked up his phone then and there to share the news of this new must-try pie with a friend.
Just as weird but not as weirdly successful is the pho ($12), Aquino’s spin on the heady, spice-laden Vietnamese dish. Bloated rice noodles teem in a broth so thick, it’s almost like cardamom gravy. Shitake, watermelon radish and cilantro make appearances, but the best reason to brave this pho is the thrilling hunk of pork belly instead of traditional beef.
Candy assured us the kitchen’s Poutine had the endorsement of several French Canadians, so we pointed our taste buds north for something completely different (again). In this interpretation of fries and gravy, house-cut spears of taters are crowned with cheese curds and braised short rib, doused in beef stock, then blistered under the broiler. For $12, I wish they’d doubled up on the heavenly curds and rib, but the plate’s a winner regardless and sure complements a pint of pale ale.
Speaking of the brews, North Mountain tries to keep four house-made beers on hand in addition to a couple of guest taps, though sometimes the onsite stuff sells out. In May, look for a pomegranate and pear hefeweizen. Try it with the impossibly fluffy Pretzel Bread ($5)— practically puffing steam—sided by house mustard and honey butter, or the Shreiner’s sausage plate. And remember, North Mountain just opened in March, so service might be a bit bumpy or slow, but everything will arrive with love. You can reward your patience with a nice fresh beer.
North Mountain Microbrewery & Gastropub
522 E. Dunlap, Phoenix,