The Manito Tap House strives for a Portland or Seattle-Fremont feel, as evidenced by:
• The bike rack out front, which even includes a bike pump and tools.
• The menu, which goes to great lengths to explain its “green” credentials and to specify the provenance of the food, as in, “Open Prairie Beef, Columbia Basin, WA.”
• The taps themselves – all 50 of them.
What? Are 50 taps absolutely necessary? As a beer-lover, my answer is: Yes, of course. It’s a paradise of choice for the beer aficionado.
And after more than a year of fine-tuning, it’s a mighty good restaurant as well. The Manito Tap House bills itself as a gastropub, which is your clue that it is higher priced than a regular pub – and of higher culinary ambition.
After many visits – a lot more than strictly necessary – I am convinced that the Manito Tap House uses better ingredients than the average pub and prepares them with more care, under the guidance of executive chef Branden Moreau.
The atmosphere is, indeed, as close as you can get to Portland and Fremont. The kegs themselves are part of the décor, displayed through windows behind the bar. The dining area has a clean brewpub/industrial feel, with shiny exposed ductwork overhead and recycled barn wood from Reardan on the walls. Big windows let in plenty of light; garage-style doors open onto a covered patio in nice weather.
Any trip to the Manito Tap House ought to begin with an order of Yam Chips ($5), crunchy fried sweet-potato chips in autumn colors.
The menu is divided into Hand-Held and Fork & Knife, roughly analogous to “sandwiches” and “entrees.”
The Big Chop ($19) is one standout on the Fork & Knife portion of the menu. A giant (12-ounce) pork chop is seared to a deep honey color and arrives at the table propped against a gorgeous triangle of crispy polenta cake. A touch of pumpkin gives the polenta a burnt-orange hue.
The chop itself is moist from brining; the slices are pearly white and juicy. Yet the spiced-apple chunks strewn across the chop are what truly set this dish apart. This apple-fennel-raisin compote has a slight cinnamon note, giving it an almost Christmas-like flavor. I highly recommend mopping a slice of chop through the clear, cidery compote juice. Pork goes beautifully with apple – and even better with spiced apple.
The Green Chile Mac & Cheese ($12) has long been a Manito staple, for good reason. Hefty corkscrew-shaped tubes of pasta (cavatappi) are served in a creamy, khaki-colored blend of jack and cojito cheeses. The green accents come from roasted chilies – jalapeño, Anaheim and serrano.
And those reddish-brown hunks scattered generously throughout? Those are pieces of bacon, giving this mac and cheese a hickory accent. The chef also throws in a generous amount of boneless cubed chicken. Is chicken strictly necessary in mac and cheese? Hardly, but I suppose it makes it seem more like a grown-up entrée.
Many people, including my dining partner, are wary of chili heat, so the Manito now lets you order this dish either mild, medium or hot. If you order it mild, you’ll search hard for any chili flavor. I would suggest dialing the gauge up to at least medium.
The chef’s specials are often ambitious, including the recent Black Boar Truffle Risotto ($15). Risotto can be a challenge, yet I found this risotto to be creamy, rich and exploding with flavors. The dominant flavor was earthy truffle, which came from a smoky truffle powder. Yet it also had layer upon layer of other savory notes. A liberal handful of sautéed wild mushrooms were scattered over the top, giving the entire dish an autumn forest aroma. The best surprise was the fresh tarragon, which meant that every so often I hit a licorice note.
The menu’s Hand-Held section has some excellent choices as well.
The Carne Adovada ($12) is a fine variation on the taco: Braised, chili-infused shredded pork shoulder, cabbage slaw and cojito cheese, served in three DeLeon corn tortillas, lined up on a skewer.
The Tap House Burger ($13) is a 7-ounce beef patty, ground right there in the kitchen, served on a light, airy softball-shaped bun, made by the in-house bread chef. It has a savory smoked onion and bacon marmalade, made from scratch, and the cheese is cambozola, an especially creamy bleu cheese.
These flavors set it above most burgers, but if you want a more standard burger, there’s the Grand Beef Burger ($10), with the more familiar condiments.
The Chicken Andouille Burger ($12) is certainly no standard chicken burger. The andouille sausage, ground into the mix, gives the patty a salty Cajun kick. It arrives on the same excellent bun as the other burgers and its apple-onion-cabbage slaw gives it a nice veggie crunch. (By the way, vegetarians can opt for the bun-less South Hill Veggie Burger, $11).
Now about that 50-tap beer list. You may experience the psychological phenomenon known as Paralysis By Too Much Choice.
I mean, the place has 10 different kinds of stouts. How’s a guy supposed to choose just one?
It’s a terrific place to do a six-beer sample tray. (It also has a hefty wine selection and a full bar.) I also appreciate the fact that the Manito Tap House hands out a detailed beer menu that lists each brew’s alcohol content, hoppiness quotient (international bitterness units, IBU) and the distance traveled from the brewery.
The Manito Tap House has been a South Hill hit since it opened in fall 2011, and it experienced some of the issues that come with success. It was crowded and slow and chaotic there for a while. However, on all recent visits, the service was quick and friendly. The menu has been pruned fairly drastically, which has improved overall efficiency. And Moreau changes the menu seasonally, so if a favorite is missing, it might show up again soon.
As for the crowds, they have never stopped coming. Lunchtime and afternoons are usually fairly open, which makes this a great spot for a post-bike-ride or post-golf late lunch.
At dinnertime, well, sometimes you’ll encounter a wait. I have no solution to that problem except this: While cooling your heels, you can console yourself with any of 50 beers.