Take this job, please

During my short, bitter stint in the corporate world, I learned to beware of the adjective “interim.” The word, inserted before any job title—as in, “the interim vice president of marketing, communications and public relations”—signified one, and only one, thing: The company didn’t know what to do with you. My experience as the SN&R’s interim food critic for the past year and a half has been no different.

“You’re so lucky you get paid for eating food,” people tell me. “You make me sick,” I mutter under my breath. If they only knew how long I’ve been trying to get out of this so-called job. “When’s the replacement coming on board?” I ask. “We’re working on it,” they’ve answered for the past 18 months. There’s an ad for a new food critic in this very issue, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for any takers. Journalists know that reviewing restaurants ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I should have known better, I thought as the Chrysler LeBaron scraped its bottom crossing the agricultural wasteland between I-5 and Highway 99, just south of Elk Grove. Thank God it will all be over soon. My dining companion and I were on our way to Elk Grove, to review “any restaurant that was not a chain” that happened to be open at 8 p.m. on a weekday. That turned out to be the Elk Grove Brewery Restaurant, located in the old part of town on Elk Grove Boulevard.

“It smells like Connecticut in here,” my companion said as we entered the place, a refurbished general store that has been in business in one form or another since 1885. “Connecticut smells like brewing yeast?” I answered. The smell of the stuff permeated the place, and seemed to emanate from the copper tanks in the near corner. Which brings me to one of the not-so-great things about the food-reviewing gig: Sometimes, duty obligates me to consume free alcoholic beverages.

Once, I exempted myself from these professional demands, but after being criticized for not sampling wine at a wine bar, I vowed from that moment on to “do as the Romans do.” Which in the case of the Elk Grove Brewery was drink beer. I wondered: Do those potential food critics out there have the nerve to stare down the loaded barrel of the brewery’s 10-beer sampler in a misguided game of Russian roulette, as I was about to do? And take notes besides?

I doubted it, noting three standouts among the 10 beers brewed on the premises: Both the Diamondback Wheat Ale and the Tropic Ale were wheat-based brews that were refreshingly subtle and light, with a hint of apricot and mango in the latter; Grain Barrel Stout was dark as Guinness, but not as thick, with a smoother, less obtrusive, may I say, “Americanized,” flavor.

Perhaps I should have said “do as the Germans do” above, because there was a definite Teutonic tinge to the brewery’s décor. Chandeliers constructed from deer antlers. A huge wood carving of a European-looking stag dominated the far wall, opposite the full bar and seemingly contradicted the multi-cultural clientele and choice blues cuts wailing in the background.

How could one not add the “Best of the Wurst” sausage platter to this tableau? Three charbroiled sausages—bratwurst, chicken apple and cajun style—served over a heaping mound of overcooked red cabbage and sauerkraut. The meat was as chewy as it was mysterious. “Beer-becue Country-Style Pork Ribs” were equally amorphous, both in style and substance. Garlic fries were the hit of the evening, living up to their “signature” billing on the menu. The cross-cut potatoes were deep-fried and laced with chopped garlic and parsley sautéed in butter. We fought to the last fry.

There’s no need in explaining what the weekly consumption of such food and beverage has done to my formerly girlish figure—yet another hazard of the food critic trade. By sharing such realities in the coming weeks, it is not my intention to scare off potential candidates for the position. I’m just the interim guy. I want out. But I do think that those who would take my place should know what they’re getting into.