Ross Valley Reporter: Marin Dining (January 6, 2010)

Marin Dining

Iron Springs Pub brews up a winner

Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 2:09 PM PSTLeslie Harlib

When a brew pub is functioning at peak capacity, it’s a lot more than a restaurant — it becomes a community center, thanks to good home-brewed beers, large portions of hearty, inexpensive food, personal attention from the owners and an atmosphere that encourages people to adopt the place as a home away from home.

I found all these elements at Iron Springs Pub and Brewery. It celebrated its fifth anniversary in October and has become one of Fairfax’s most popular hangouts for all kinds of people: families, mountain bikers, musicians, you name it.

It’s easy to see why. First of all, if you like beer, and you favor sampling different types of craft-brewed beers, Iron Springs’ brewing department under head brewer Christian Kazakoff, produces the best “paddle” sampler ($7.50) in Marin. You get your choice of six of the brew pub’s 13 beers, served in an effervescent chorus line of cute, skinny 3-ounce steins with handles. I chose ales that swung from the palest, wheatiest brews to the darkest and most earthy of stouts, and all the colors in between. It made for a fun mouth party, getting hits of wheat, caramel, coffee, chocolate, honey and more, depending on what I was sipping. Beers are also available by the pint or half-pint. (Sure there’s a wine list, but hey, this is a brew pub. For my taste, why bother?)

Iron Springs is also trying to be ecologically conscious. It became a Certified Green Business in 2007. The pub operates a vegetable oil-powered “Ambrewlance” for delivery service, and provides biodegradable to-go containers.

Owner Mike Altman’s a clever guy. In addition to eco-consciousness, he’s health conscious as well. His brewmaster creates natural sodas such as orange and root beer for the hordes of kids who, with their families, appear to be regulars here.

The place itself has several personalities in the one large dining area. A standing-room-only crowd packed the bar, separated from the main space by a low divider so people can watch other people, regardless of where they sit or stand. In the main dining area, I favor a section tucked way at the back for its relative quietness. It’s also fun to sit on the banquettes facing into the room and watch the brew pub’s ongoing hustle and bustle.

As you’d imagine, the menu favors simple, strong-flavored dishes that would complement the beers and allow those malty, sudsy brews to sluice through garlicky, tangy sauces.

A starter special of tuna fritters was an unusual, excellent beer snack — three balls of fluffy batter bolstered by chunks of salty tuna and snippets of green onion. Under their crunchy crust, they had the soft friendliness of pancakes turned entree by the fish and vegetables. They came with cole slaw and a creamy, mildly spicy dip.

I also loved the Iron Springs barbecued wings ($5.44 for a half-order). They were at once pungent, crunchy, sticky and savory-sweet, similar to buffalo wings but without the heat. Call ’em chicken candy. (You can also get a spicy version.)

Enjoy fried food? Try the onion strings ($4.50), a huge platter of thin onion slices coated in the lightest of flours and deep-fried until they tangle into coppery curlicues, sort of like Nicole Kidman’s long locks revamped as an appetizer.

In addition to a large menu of regulars, daily specials might include a memorable half-chicken ($14.99), which exploded with juiciness and potent flavor under a thin tomato garlic sauce that also complemented the fluffy mashed potatoes that came with it.

Do try the vegetable side dish ($4.50), good value for a huge plate of mixed sautéed baby carrots, zucchini, broccoli and bok choy.

Pok Chuc ($13.99) is another hearty plate of food, this one emphasizing marinated, grilled Yucatan-style pork steak (enough for two) with sides of rich black beans cooked with onions, and rice with a smack of smoke to its taste.

Other menu items include a hearty bowl of French onion soup ($5.50); roasted chicken quesadilla ($8.50), assorted Niman Ranch fare, mushroom-and-onion or turkey burgers (all around $10) and a grilled-sausage plate of bratwurst and banger, marinated in house-brewed Epiphany ale and served with red-cabbage sauerkraut, potato salad and whole-grain mustard — a true Oktoberfest-style combo.

Desserts are made in-house, such as seasonal apple crisp. We enjoyed the richness of a succulently dense chocolate cake, a giant bittersweet truffle topped with a knob of vanilla ice cream. Four could finish a meal on this one sweet.

Iron Springs features a happy hour from 4 to 6 every day and all day Monday, with discounts on beer and food.

It’s such an appealing place — even if you’re not a beer drinker you should go for the atmosphere. Pubs, more than any kind of restaurant, seem to echo the pulse of a town. At Iron Springs, you can feel Fairfax’s heart and get a darned good meal as well. That’s a win-win combo in my book.

Iron Springs is at 765 Center Blvd., Fairfax, 485-1005, Free street or lot parking nearby.

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