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SAN DIEGO BEER WEEK: Beer & Spicy Food Dinner

Last year, one of the most talked about events among San Diego Beer Week-goers was the Beer and Spicy Food Dinner held at Ba Ren Szechuan restaurant in Linda Vista. So, it was no surprise when the 2010 edition, held last night at Santee’s Sab E Lee 2 Thai restaurant, sold out. Apparently, San Diego’s beer enthusiast population has a healthy fire-eater sub-sect. Count me as part of that pack. I admit to being a brash-slash-recklessly idiotic guy who’s been known to chomp whole habañeros for no reason better than wanting to find out how it feels. Here’s a shocker…it’s hot! But it hurt so good.

San Diego Beer week 2010

San Diego Beer Week 2010 at Sab E Lee 2.

Photo by Brandon Hernandez

It was nice to be amongst my own kind at Sab E Lee, but there was more to this event than stretching the Scoville scale. It was as much about showcasing traditional cultural fare that, thanks to the popularity of Americanized Asian cuisine, gets nowhere near the due it deserves thanks to the scarce availability, at least via mainstream high-profile restaurants. Striving to bring the gastronomic heat while bridging some cultural gaps was the foodie quartet that spawned this idea.

“It's really just a group of like-minded friends and beer lovers who have a desire to showcase local beer with food that isn't usually featured in standard beer pairing dinners,” says Candice Woo, a local food writer who worked with friend and food blogger “Kirk K” to select the night’s dishes. “We all have a fondness for Asian food—and spicy food—which just happens to go wonderfully with beer.”

After deciding on the menu, the tandem handed off to the other half of their team, beer enthusiast Josh Sibelman and certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a sommelier) Andy Waer, who came up with the beers to pair against the edible field. “Beer is an everyday beverage,” said Sibelman. “Ethnic cuisines are usually paired with generic pilsner style beers. We want to introduce fine beers with ethnic cuisines and show how that can work and help bridge people of different backgrounds.”

To that end, he and Waer made a point of not only selecting beers of exceptional quality, but more commonly available varieties that first time samplers would be able to find and enjoy beyond the meal. Among those was Gordon Biersch Export Helles Lager (also available at Normal Heights’ Eleven bar under the handle Eleven Lager), a malty Germanic lager with floral notes that matched up with the bright flavors of lime and spicy chilies presented in an appetizer trio featuring zesty Thai sausage, chicken-stuffed pastry cups and build-your-own spinach wraps served with dried shrimp, toasted coconut and tamarind dipping sauce.

Equally as successful from a pairing perspective, in a totally different way, was Alpine Ale, a pale ale from Alpine Brewing Co. selected for its below-average hop levels. When drunk in tandem with piquant dishes, hops intensify the heat on the palate. Yet, hops and crisp medium-bodied beer styles like pale ale also help refresh taste buds after sampling spicy food. This beer brought the best of both worlds, at first upping the heat of zingy papaya, seafood and citrus-cured raw beef salads while clearing a path for the next bite.

A ginger-infused version of Ballast Point’s Big Eye IPA, which brewer Colby Chandler described as a “1990s India Pale Ale” due to it being maltier and nowhere near as dry as the IPAs that San Diego became famous for at the turn of the century, co-mingled beautifully with Chinese broccoli flavored with preserved fish as well as garlic rice that Woo and K described as “crack” for its addictive deliciousness. (For the record, I plan on checking myself into Betty Ford as soon as I post this article. A trip to Sab E Lee 2 or their original location in Linda Vista would be worth it just to sample this tasty delicacy.)

Even more starchy bliss came courtesy of dessert, sweet sticky rice with mango which went surprisingly well with AleSmith’s Horny Devil Belgian strong ale, which features subtle sweetness that belies its 11% ABV strength. This was a pairing that was so good that it surprised Waer every bit as much as the roomful of adventurous eaters he was serving. Even a diner sitting next to me who took a sip of the beer by its lonesome and instantly proclaimed that Belgian beers, on the whole, are not his cup of tea, praised the pairing and asked for seconds after trying it with the dessert.

“We hope that the dinners will inspire people to return, bring their own beer, and try more of the menu to experience other beer pairing possibilities,” says Woo, who makes light of a good point. Many Asian eateries in San Diego go the high road where liquor is concerned, allowing patrons to bring their own sans corkage (or cap-age as the case may be), making them great arenas for beer-and-food pairing experimentation.

Be on the lookout for Sibelman and Waer to branch out beyond San Diego Beer Week festivities starting in early 2011 when they launch their upcoming venture, San Diego Beer Dinners. After all, nights this fun should come more than once a year.

My picks for great San Diego Beer Week events on Tuesday (November 9):

Avery Brewing Night of Big Beers, 4:30 p.m.

O’Brien’s Pub will have eight extremely high alcohol beers from Avery Brewing, a brewing company known for pushing the imperial envelope. Look out for (in more ways than one) monsters like the 12.6% 2007 Mephistopheles Stout.

4646 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa, 858-715-1745

The Lost Abbey Night with Tomme Arthur, 5 p.m.

The vast variety of on-tap goodness at Churchill’s is amazing enough, but on this day, sinners and saints alike can enjoy rarities like 2008 Vintage Older Viscosity and Deliverance with the Belgophile who hand-crafted them.

887 W. San Marcos Blvd, San Marcos, 760-471-8773

First Annual Beer Walkabout, 5:45 p.m.

Following on the intra-neighborhood success of North Park’s beer drinkabout Urban Solace will transform its dining room into a foodie pedestrian’s dream come true with five stations stocked with decadent dishes designed to pair with ten fine craft brews.

3823 30th Street, North Park, 619-295-6464

Brewmaster’s Dinner, 6-9 p.m.

Break bread and down a few with Pizza Port Carlsbad’s Jeff Bagby and The Bruery’s Patrick Rue at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens’ edible ode to two of the US’ most popular brewers.

1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, 760-471-1999

AleSmith Beer Pairing Dinner, 7 p.m.

Lots of restaurants are doing beer dinners for Beer Week, but at The Ritual Tavern, they’re a year-‘round affair, so you can expect an above average menu (e.g.—roast goat paired with YuleSmith 2010) to match the superior brews of AleSmith. 4095 30th Street, North Park, 619.283.1618