110 N. Magnolia, El Cajon
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
I’ve been able to oversee the development of several local breweries from conception to brick-and-mortar status. Among them are Societe Brewing Company, Nickel Beer Co., and URBN St. Brewing Co. The latter officially opened last month after a long, drawn-out permitting process. I’ll admit to getting anxious about seeing the finished product as two individuals I’ve gotten to know over the years through my association with Stone Brewing Co. — executive chef Alex Carballo and brewmaster Callaway Ryan — were heavily involved. Last week, I finally got my first look at and first taste of this business, which took over the space vacated by the defunct El Cajon Brewing Company.
Located at the intersection of Magnolia and Main, URBN St. occupies prime East County real estate. And now that the URBN Restaurant Group has had its way with the space, it looks deserving of it. An earth-toned color palate is complemented by interiors featuring numerous shipping palettes (complete as well as torn down to create a wall separating the main dining room from a banquet space), wheeled wooden tables, and barrels used for aging beer. Guests can watch pizza being made through a glass-encased kitchen, or watch Ryan tooling around his exposed brewery, making for a complete brewpub experience. Best of all, to me, it doesn’t feel too URBN-ized. This space is its own instead of a redux of the North Park flagship or its Vista cousin.
The menu is predictably URBN, which works. The company’s Connecticut-style coal-fired pizza and zesty baked wings have survived transport to El Cajon intact. A breakfast pizza (fried eggs, mashed potato, chorizo, cheese and a side of Tapatio hot sauce) I shared along with a sampler flight of house beers was fantastic, perhaps the best pizza I’ve had at an URBN establishment. The dough was well cooked, but not burnt as it sometimes can be at the high temperatures produced by the coal-fired oven.
Most of the beers I had were of the first generation variety. One, a porter, was actually a brew Ryan produced specifically to flush out the brewery, which was left in shambles by the previous owners, complete with stale beer sitting stagnant in the fermentation tanks. But you’d never know it. An inventive malt bill keeps the beer in line with style, bringing on a deep toastiness in the finish that pairs up well with URBN’s meatballs.
All of Ryan’s other beers were less improvisational, especially a saison he refers to as his “baby.” Were I capable of producing such a brilliant farmhouse-style ale, I’d claim parent status, too. It delivered such potent, floral Belgian yeast character and drank so easily that it reminded me of saisons I’ve sampled while in Belgium. It was the runaway champion of my flight night. Also impressive was an EESB (extra extra special bitter) that dares to be overtly malty, enough that it’s named Malt Bomb. Flavors of caramel, toffee, and roasted chestnuts combine to form a liquid quilt of many patches that, put together, are fashionable.
A summer ale welcomes drinkers to the glass with an inviting, citrusy nose. On the palate, it’s light and balanced in its hop character; an ideal beer for hot El Cajon summers. The house IPA has more body, but comes across as a work in progress to me. A brown ale that I was enamored with when I tasted Ryan’s prototype beers is nice, but doesn’t exhibit the interesting and tasty pretzel-like flavor characteristics it did in its early form. I’m hoping they return in future batches so URBN St. patrons can taste that in tandem with pizza crust, as it’s sure to be a superb pairing.
It took some patience, but I was happy with my first trip to URBN St. I never doubted the heart of its creators, nor the fact their drive and ambition easily eclipsed that of El Cajon Brewing’s originators, but intention and execution are two different things. Fortunately, especially for El Cajon residents, URBN St. gets good scores for both.