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Tecopa restaurants opening for season with new offerings

Updated September 27, 2019 - 7:00 am

Weird beer, lottery tickets, food as art and life-sized Jenga are a few of the highlights as local restaurants open their doors for the cool weather season in Tecopa, the tiny town with what may be the most brewpubs per capita in the United States.

Tecopa is home to four different eating establishments, including the Tecopa Brewing Company and BBQ, the Tecopa Bistro, Steaks and Beer, and the Death Valley Brewing Company. With two pubs pouring from their own on-site breweries and often less than a hundred full-time residents, the ratio is far and away higher than in a recent study that ranked Portland, Maine at the top, with 18 breweries per 50,000 people. (That’s only one per every 2,777 residents.)

This isn’t a reflection on the drinking habits of the town’s inhabitants, said Dan Leesburg, manager of Death Valley Brewing, who originally noticed the statistic, but rather their creativity. He and stepfather, Jon Zellhoefer, are passionate about their craft brews. “I love making weird beer,” Leesburg said.

The Death Valley Brewery beer menu is always changing, added Jon Zellhoefer who owns the pub with his wife, Cheryl Zellhoefer. There are a few favorites they bring back from time to time, including Snake Bite, Habanero Wheat and Cucumber Light, but he enjoys creating new flavors.

During their downtime, this past summer Zellhoefer and Leesburg expanded into an extra room in their historic downtown Tecopa building and added new seating in the pub area. Death Valley Brewery has a front game room for billiards and darts and last season they began selling tickets for the California lottery, Zellhoefer said.

Death Valley Brewery is celebrating its sixth season this year and running promotions to give back to the customer base that kept them going, Leesburg said. They are offering a commemorative coin that comes with a free T-shirt and customer discounts and a punch card entitling the bearer to a free pizza on their sixth visit. The pub serves pizza and soft pretzels.

Next door at Steaks and Beer, chef Eric Scott is already back to work cooking and serving the steaks that have earned him nearly universal five-star internet reviews and loyal return customers over the past three years. Scott also expanded his seating this summer, converting an old bathroom into a small dining alcove, increasing indoor seating from six chairs to eight. Most patrons prefer the spacious front patio, Scott said. The patio is often crowded in nice weather and the wait for dinner can be up to an hour.

Scott’s menu includes traditional steak dinners, a gluten-free vegetarian pasta, and a five-course dinner in which the patron chooses what kind of steak they want, “and I take care of the rest,” Scott said. New on the menu this season, said Scott, is a miso bone broth with seafood and udon noodles and a new dessert. He hasn’t named the dessert yet, he said, but it involves bananas and Nutella.

Steaks and Beer and the Death Valley Brewing Company, located side by side, synchronized their hours this season so Scott could offer brews from the pub to his patrons.

Down the street, the Tecopa Bistro is preparing for a season that emphasizes food as art by inviting guest chefs who have a passion for cooking something unique and no venue to serve it. “It’s the equivalent of an art gallery for people who cook,” said owner Ryan Thomas. His first guest will be from the popular Johnny Pacific restaurant, which serves Pacific Island and Latin American food, said Thomas, “but he’s passionate about other kinds of cooking, like Italian, so he comes here to spread his wings.”

Thomas is slimming down the regular Bistro menu this season, he said, and focusing on American fusion dishes with locally sourced ingredients. The Thomas family grows much of their own produce, raises their own beef and pork and even their own goat milk, Thomas said. His father’s popular seafood gumbo and pork chops will remain a staple.

To find out what’s cooking in the Bistro kitchen on any given day, said Thomas, visit their Facebook page and diners can see him harvesting in the morning what will be cooked up and served in the evening.

Owners Ryan Thomas and Paul Barnes also play music with their house band at the outdoor stage on Friday and Saturday nights or book other bands to perform.

At the other end of town, the Tecopa Brewing Company and BBQ Restaurant is opening for their fourth season on Saturday, Sept. 28, with a grand reopening celebration. “We are super excited about this season starting,” said co-owner Courtney McNeil. The event includes live music, ping-pong and life-size Jenga, as well as some new flavors on the beer menu.

Brewer Westley McNeil used the summer to experiment with new beers, but they will also be bringing back longtime Tecopa Brewing Company favorites, such as the War Eagle IPA, the Cali Red and the Gunsight Stout, said Courtney McNeil.

This year the barbecue restaurant is offering its traditional fare, but also has a new classically trained French chef from San Francisco, said McNeil. “He will be preparing a specialty dish for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a beer pairing.”

The business, like all of the Tecopa restaurants, is family owned and operated and requires the proprietors to wear many hats. Having additional staff this season, said McNeil, will allow brewer Westley McNeil to put more creative energy into the brewery. “His sole focus is going to be making beer,” she said.

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California.

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