Hard to believe Wolverine State Brewing Co. has been hidden away in the parking lot behind Big George’s for nearly a decade. It has not only survived but thrived as an ultimate townie watering hole, in recent years adding and perfecting pub fare and sandwiches packed with meats smoked on the premises. It’s still a fortress-like cement-block structure, despite having stretched its footprint for a second boxy but sky-lit bar/dining room. Now it is expanding again in the brewery section, that mysterious back room full of huge gleaming vats glimpsed through doorways while you order food and drink at the massive L-shaped bar.
In the early years, you could get only chips at the bar to munch with site-brewed lager. Occasionally someone in the audience would pass around homemade cookies when you went to hear folk or bluegrass bands (which still appear a few times a month, usually on Tuesdays). It was like hanging out in a friend’s garage. A big garage, that is, with endless booze.
Wolverine has always brewed only lager, in a lengthy cool-temperature process that produces a cleaner, crisper taste than you find in many cloudy craft ales. The varieties have expanded into the dozens, including smoked porter and coffee stout. But it’s the signature India pale lagers that seem particularly well paired to the food menu. Meal offerings are limited, but not one of the baker’s dozen of sandwiches or Mexican-inspired platters, or the lone salad, seems likely to disappoint. Food here is not fussy but rather all about the basics of good flavor in hearty fare.
The “Brewmaster” sandwich looks smallish at first, but that pretty brown brioche bun turns out to be sweetly dense and stuffed with coleslaw and saucy pulled pork smoked over cherry and apple wood. It gets messy as you dig in, but chances are you’ll clean your plate by dragging bun crusts and even your crunchy potato chips through any remaining drops of savory lager-laced barbecue sauce.
The hefty “Chicken & Cream” burrito arrives nearly hanging off the plate, like a rectangular cloud in a sky of blue corn tortilla chips. It’s packed with the queso fresco cheesiness of rice-orzo pilaf, tasty field greens, and smoked chicken chunks subtly aromatic with cilantro and lime. A complex and peppery amber salsa, more acidic than sweet, is served on the side.
Other sandwiches are built around pastrami, a faintly sweet smoked bourbon turkey, and a black bean burger. Sandwich accompaniments span five different cheeses, onions, kraut, tomato, peppers, and spicy dressings. In May, Wolverine upgraded its chicken breast sandwich, replacing the odd “Pineapple Express” with the “Yardbird,” an inch-thick slab of breast precision smoked for woodsy flavor without dryness, accompanied by fresh guacamole and strips of high-quality smoky bacon.
Also reappearing for summer is Wolverine’s outside patio. Its nine tables are surrounded by graffitied buildings on three sides, but, set far back from traffic, it’s more relaxing after a long day of work than experiencing cars buzzing by on Main or Liberty. Improving the outside atmosphere are good-sized potted trees, hanging baskets of ferns, and giant window boxes planted with flowers and rhubarb along the wall–so what if there aren’t actually windows over most of them?
Unless you arrive about an hour early to snag a table for Monday night trivia, the patio or the back dining room will be the only places you can sit. My “Late Bloomers” trivia team came in last place in our debut this spring; my son wants us to move up at least enough to beat his former Slauson Middle School teacher.
Did I say this place feels very hometown?
Wolverine is probably not what out-of-town visitors have in mind when they’re ready for you to show them a big night out in resto-town. But that’s part of what makes it attractive. When was the last time you were at a serious beer-drinkers’ brewpub with a yummy-sounding kids’ menu? Wolverine makes Bell’s in K-Zoo seem like a trendy wannabe.
Consider checking out food specials on the website beforehand. If I had followed that advice, I would have known ahead of time about recent Friday night specials of brisket sandwiches and “smoked salmon on rice pilaf with parsnips, radishes, and carrots. En papillote.” Seriously! This is not your grandfather’s cement-block townie bar.
Wolverine State Brewing Co.
2019 W. Stadium Blvd.
Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat. noon-1 a.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m. (kitchen closes an hour earlier).
Sandwiches, nachos, burritos, salad $8.50-$11. Children’s menu items $6.