The Phoenix West building space in Bend — which, since 2007, has housed the Upper Terrace Cafe, the Phoenix Cafe, the Old Mill Bistro and Old Mill Brew Wërks — suddenly has new life with the arrival of the Rat Hole BrewPub.
Rat Hole Brewing began as a family project when Al and Susan Toepfer transformed a southeast Bend barn, surrounded by 10 acres of farmland, into a nano brewery with Al as brewmaster. Supported by other family members, they began bottling their own craft beers and opened their Old Mill District brewpub in mid-July.
One of the first orders of business was determining what kind of food Rat Hole would serve. Peruvian-born chef Francisco Cano's proficiency in all manner of Latin-style cuisines helped make that an easy decision.
While other Central Oregon brewpubs focus on “comfort food,” at various levels of gourmet, Rat Hole serves a variation of Southwestern cuisine — tacos and enchiladas, but also carne adovada and posole with Hatch chilies from New Mexico.
The atmosphere here is simple, but it follows the same theme as the food, with Pueblo Indian basketry and ceremonial items adorning some of the nooks of the 35-seat pub. A half-dozen bar seats rest in close proximity to multiple taps, three of them devoted to guest pours, but most drawing tastes of Rat Hole's own award-winning beers, including a hoppy saison, a malty hazelnut brown ale and a smooth vanilla porter.
There's live music here on some nights, such as Tuesdays, when local jazz duos perform to an appreciative crowd.
On recent visits, I have found service to be excellent when Susan Toepfer was taking orders and delivering plates, but hit-and-miss with other attendants. Similarly, I must have picked the right things in my menu choices because although I enjoyed my food (and I heard nothing but raves from other patrons sitting at the bar) my dining companions didn't have the same response.
There's also a question of value. I am miffed that Rat Hole charges $5.25 for a basket of chips and salsa that might be free at Mexican restaurants, even though they are blue-corn and sweet-potato chips.
Otherwise, portions are reasonably generous, although one of my companions complained about paying $13 for a burrito. A few days later, that price was $14.
During my first visit to Rat Hole, I was joined for lunch by a local businessman friend. Our drink orders were taken promptly, and as we sipped and waited for our meals, we were offered a delicious dish of spicy roasted pistachios.
On this occasion, I ordered the pub's daily pasta special. While not specifically a Southwestern plate, the penne dish nourished me with big chunks of tender stewed lamb. Tossed in with the pasta was a cornucopia of vegetables — kale, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions, black olives and corn, as well as parsley and cilantro — plus crumbles of feta cheese, adding to a pleasantly complex flavor.
A side slaw, made with chopped white cabbage and finely diced jalapeno pepper, was clearly tangy but also a little sloppy with overdressing.
My dining companion requested a red chile burrito, with the normal filling of pork adovada to be replaced with chicken, a dietary preference. It was served as requested; the bird was wrapped with pinto beans and cheddar cheese into a thick flour tortilla, and offered with small portions of sour cream, salsa and guacamole.
The burrito as presented was tasty but too dry, perhaps because it lacked the tomato-based adovada sauce in which the pork is normally stewed. Also too dry: A Spanish-style “red rice” and my friend's cabbage slaw which, curiously, had insufficient dressing, while my own slaw had too much.
I returned a few nights later for Tuesday jazz with guitarist Richard Taelour and keyboardist Andy Armer. The duo thoroughly entertained me as I enjoyed two courses at the bar, before I took a couple more portions home to share.
My $4 “cup” of posole was one of the largest bowls I could have imagined; certainly this was a more substantial and healthier meal than a pricier basket of chips! A thick, rich soup of hominy grits with bites of pork, it was flavored with cilantro and green chilies and almost filled me before my other course arrived. Side dishes of finely sliced radishes, onions and lettuce were great add-ons.
But the chile verde was worth waiting for. Tender chunks of pork were stewed in a tomatillo sauce with green Hatch chilies, again flavored with cilantro. I was less impressed with the cilantro-rice side dish and a spicy cabbage salad.
My usual dining companion later expressed dissatisfaction with her orders from the online menu. A trio of fish tacos, folded into corn tortillas with white cabbage, salsa and guacamole, were very skimpy for the $9 price tag. To make matters worse, one piece of seafood, possibly Oregon Coast snapper, had a very “fishy” flavor.
She also did not care for a full-meal salad of Belgian endive tossed with sliced pears, tomatoes, candied walnuts, parsley and chunks of blue cheese. Part of the problem, she decided, was that a white-wine vinaigrette dressing didn't go with slices of rare steak as well as it might have accompanied chicken or shrimp, both of which were also offered. And that steak was good — until she had to spit out a piece that was all fat and gristle.
I'm sure it would have tasted better had she come to the pub with me and washed it down with a pint of Rat Hole's Rotation Red Ale.