It’s not quite 7 on a Saturday night and Brea’s cavernous Taps Fish House & Brewery is stuffed to the walls. Couples awaiting tables shuffle about the foyer. There isn’t one vacant stool around the raw bar. Down in the sunken lounge, the bar is shoulder-to-shoulder with beer lovers, and booths are full. Few seats remain in the main dining room so our gang of five feels lucky to snag a roomy booth.
It’s a good thing Taps’ menu has something for everyone, because everyone is here. On my previous visits, many diners ordered from a value-heavy menu offering three courses for $24.95. Tonight that menu isn’t in evidence—it’s available weekends, by request—but the room is still abuzz. We peruse the big menu; it takes some time, so we fortify ourselves with cocktails and wine.
Right from its founding by the Manzella family in 1999, Taps offered a menu packed with options.
The ambitious clan of neophyte restaurateurs thought big, packing an on-site brewery, an oyster bar, New Orleans specialties, cocktails, and a menu of steaks, chops, and appetizers galore into the 14,000-square-foot fish house of their dreams. North County diners approved en masse, paving the way for Joe Manzella to buy Anaheim’s classic The Catch, freshly reopened in its new Platinum Triangle home, as well as a second Taps venue in Corona. The family spent the last decade polishing its act, and downsizing wasn’t part of that evolution.
We order appetizers to see us through to decision time. Maine lobster dumplings are steamed pouches bursting with sweet, buttery nuggets; a shallow pool of intense lobster sauce keeps them moist, and a mound of truffled foam is creamy, not airy, and a nice texture contrast. The ceviche is skimpy and forgettable, and the accompanying chips are ordinary. Blue crab dynamite oysters, baked with a rich mixture of crab, shiitakes, and baby spinach, get a slight Asian spin with a touch of sesame oil. We attack a dome of crusty brown sourdough as soon as it’s presented. The yeasty loaf is served with olive oil and dark balsamic—a dreary duo that makes me wish butter were back in vogue.
Two meat dishes are surprisingly strong. Achiote-rubbed pork chop is a touch overcooked, but still moist and with a nice crust that leaves a subdued afterburn. Australian rack of lamb is particularly mild, but far from bland, and pairs well with al dente ravioli filled with goat cheese and sundried tomato that gets a splash of rosemary lamb jus. Pale coral, pan-seared Tasmanian ocean trout, which tastes somewhere between Pacific salmon and rainbow trout, is delicate, but rich enough to carry off a coating of toasty, crunchy almonds. Basmati citrus rice accompanies and it’s the side starch of the night—bright, fluffy, and nutty. Jumbo Maine scallops get a deft sear, but the fat bivalves contain a bit of grit, a pesky scallop nemesis. Fish ’n’ chips features tender cod fried in a batter made with the restaurant’s own cream ale—a nice touch that adds welcome flavor to the plain fish.
Skillful service is the norm here. The only night our earnest waiter fails to please, it’s because he’s invasive, not elusive. He visits too often, which is preferable to being ignored.
Happy hour is a big deal, due in no small part to brewmaster Victor Novak’s award-winning European-style ales and lagers. He brews a selection of 30 to 35, and they are rotated throughout the year with seven daily selections. Highlights are seasonal beers such as Thomas Jefferson Ale, Irish Red Ale, and Helles Lager.
Value is a strong lure at the popular jazz Sunday brunch. It’s a copious Mardi Gras-themed feast that is mostly buffet style. Mountains of chilled shellfish compete with acres of Mediterranean sides, New Orleans favorites, egg dishes, carved meats, endless pastries, made-to-order pastas, omelets, crepes, and bananas Foster. Reputable California bubbly is included (or a glass of fresh ale), but you can upgrade to a make-your-own bloody mary.
Brea is not known as a dining hub; many of its best picks require an intimate knowledge of the city. Taps is the glaring exception. The huge venue, which looms over one of the town’s busiest corners, has evolved during the past decade into a true landmark. Taps tries hard to give folks what they want. And isn’t that the secret to being the people’s choice?
Taps Fish House & Brewery
Lobster dumplings, blue crab dynamite baked oysters, Tasmanian ocean trout, pork chop, lamb rack, fried peanut butter-banana-and-Nutella sandwich.
Appetizers $7 to $23; entrees, $13 to $65; desserts, $6 to $13.
Several curved booths in the dining room.
Taste of Taps is a $24.95 three-course dinner that diners build from a choice of 22 dishes. Includes a serving of any beer on tap. The menu is offered on weekends by request.
Sunday Jazz Brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., is a festive spread, especially suited to buffet fans. $32, and $13 for kids 10 and younger.
101 E. Imperial Highway
Photograph by Winnie Ma
Published April 2010