Just two hours earlier and I’d have been witness to an entire goat splayed over an impromptu pit of bricks and coals at Brewster’s Beer Garden. This ancient style of cooking, using a metal cross, isn’t a sight for everyone, but cooking “asado al palo” —literally meaning barbecued on a spit” — is a Spanish tradition that makes for some of the tastiest grilled meats you’ll ever have.
This is serious pit master kinda stuff, and a far cry from the kind of cooking Chris Beerman, who heads the kitchen at Petaluma’s Brewster’s Beer Garden, was doing at the haute San Francisco restaurant Boulevard, where tweezers rather than Volkswagon-sized barbecues, were the norm.
But at this 350-seat outdoor beer garden in the heart of downtown Petaluma, he’s clearly in his element, frequently roasting entire beasts for the restaurant’s impressive barbecue dishes. Ranging from special goat tacos prepared for Cinco de Mayo, to wet-mopped chopped “whole hog” and smoked lamb, ‘que has clearly become Beerman’s culinary jam since moving from San Francisco.
Having tasted some of the very best — and very worst — barbecue that Sonoma County has to offer, I give Brewster’s high marks for flavor and technique. When it’s been a good long while since we’ve had a barbecued rib that actually fell off the bone without the use of a knife/hacksaw/gnawing, Brewster’s was a welcome relief; with smokey, saucy pork that acquiesces like a Georgia peach in August. As not to create a civil war among ‘que-thusiasts, Beerman makes a solid Texas-style beef brisket, St. Louis style pork ribs and even smoked Korean short ribs.
And even though there are also smoked beets, smoked wings, smoky pork belly, a smoky mezcal cocktail and smoked tea leaves, don’t bank on Brewster’s just being a barbecue spot.
Beerman, who was also exec chef at SF diner Citizens Band and donut-mecca, Pinkie’s Bakery, puts both skillsets to work making modern comfort classics that include his signature onion ring-topped mac and cheese, fried chicken sandwich and chocolate brownie sundae.
“You should come see our garden sometime,” he says, between running back to the open kitchen and a smoker with a perfectly lacquered ham hock he occasionally peeks at. At his Petaluma home, he’s growing some of the restaurant’s produce, while sourcing the rest of the menu from local farms, ranches and producers including Filigree Farms, Alchemist Farms, Marin Sun Farms, Nicasio Valley, Stemple Ranch and the darlings-of-the-moment, CHEVOO goat cheese made with Aleppo-Urfa chili and lemon.
The infused olive oil chevre stars in the smoked beet salad ($11), with frisse, mustard greens and walnuts, with the olive oil also serving as an ingredient in the dressing. A must order.
Pork Belly with Cheese Curds: What could be a hot mess on a plate comes with two large pieces of crispy belly, Romesco sauce and fluffy Beecher’s Cheese curds. The snap peas on the bottom serve as a tasty foil to all the decadence.
Fried Chicken Sando ($14): The best fried-chicken sandwich, probably ever. Crispy-yet-juicy chicken, slab bacon, melty goat cheddar, garlic mayo, Della Fattoria bun. Eat quickly so as not to require sharing.
Beer cocktails: On a hot day, there’s just about nothing tastier than a beer. But add, say, pear cider to a crisp pale ale ($7, Pear Pressure) or a nitro cold brew to coconut porter ($9, Surf Bro) and you’ve got an afternoon made for bocce and bluegrass (both of which are featured at the sprawling garden).
Cocktail cocktails: Seasonal cocktails with a side of obsession. Beverage director Alfie Turnshek can talk for hours about how he infuses buttered popcorn into rum for his “Cineplex” ($9), which is a take on rum and Coke with a movie theme. Or the mole bitters, made with chocolate and cinnamon in the Petaloma ($10), made with tequila, mezcal, grapefruit and lemon-lime soda. Big city cocktails with a small town prices (nothing over $10). There’s also a huge selection of craft beers on draft from near and far, including Anderson Valley, Henhouse, 101 North and Bear Republic.
Brownie Sundae: Usually strictly kid-stuff, this grown up version has Valrohna chocolate, Three Twins ice cream, graham crumbles and more chocolate on top. Doesn’t have to be nearly this delicious, but is.
If you go
The space is immense, with a plethora of picnic-style tables. Great for a group, or if you’re interested in being social. A bocce court for grown-ups and a kids’ area to let the tots go nuts. Brunch served on Saturday and Sunday. Abbreviated lunch menu starts at 11:30 a.m. and goes until 5 p.m when the larger dinner menu emerges. Kids menu with chicken fingers and other tasty kid grub. Dogs welcome. Weekly music events Friday through Sunday regularly; every other Thursday is Bluegrass and Bourbon.
Know that: This busy restaurant can get crowded, and service can range from enthusiastic to dismissive depending on the time of day and staffing. Plating can also get a little haphazard when the kitchen is really humming. Parking can also get tight, but there are several overflow lots. Finding the restaurant is tricky, since there’s not much signage from the street.
Overall: Brewster’s Beer Garden is a new go-to beer garden with room for the whole family (including Rover), great barbecue and a top-shelf chef. Reasonably priced cocktails and plenty on draft make it doubly delicious.
229 Water St. North, Petaluma, 707-981-8330, brewstersbeergarden.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 to 10p.m., midnight on Friday and Saturday.