With my wife out of town on a “girl’s road trip”, I wondered what I would do for the 4 days she’d be away. I don’t mind being by myself but when you have nothing planned, it’s the boredom that gets you. I typed out a few emails, clicked away a few texts and made a few phone calls to see if I could get a “guy’s night out” sort of deal to go through but alas, it was almost not to be. Thankfully I got one taker and so we went, rolling 2 deep.
Sonoma Chicken Coop, 200 East Campbell Avenue, Campbell, CA
When Sonoma Chicken Coop first opened it doors in downtown San Jose, it was an immediate hit. Their menu boldly advertised no dish to be over $10 and, from what I remember, the most expensive dish weighed in at $9.99. The food was good and inexpensive. For those who have never been to Chicken Coop, they basically specialize in simple Italian dishes, rotisserie and a few BBQ items. You order your food from the counter and pick it up when it’s ready. There are no waitstaff, just busboys. Despite the self-service, Chicken Coop took off. So much so they now have 4 locations. San Jose was the original but I was at the Campbell location because that’s where the brewery is.
The Campbell location of Sonoma Chicken Coop is quite storied and related to Firehouse Brewery & Grille in Sunnyvale. Before Firehouse, there was Stoddard’s Brewery & Eatery. Firehouse brewmaster Steve Donohue, then working for Stoddards, recalls how the placed was packed. Business was very good and the owners decided to expand and build another brewery in Campbell. Steve designs the brewhouse and up opens Stoddards in Campbell. For a variety of reasons the Campbell location doesn’t do well. Ownership ends up selling it and it then becomes Campbell Brewing Company. Campbell Brewing Company folds after some time and it becomes Sonoma Chicken Coop.
The Campbell location is located right in the heart of downtown Campbell on it’s main strip, Campbell Avenue. The neighborhood has undergone a mild gentrification with the addition of other restaurants, bars and shops. It used to be a quiet and quaint downtown but it is slowly turning into something a bit livelier. When I arrived, the sidewalks were alive with people getting their dinners and enoying a warm and sunny California evening.
I walk into Sonoma Chicken Coop and it is packed. Upon entering into the main doorway you will find yourself in receiving space. If you go right, you will see the main dining area with the counter to order your food at the very back. To your left is the bar area. A band is setting up to play and the place is packed. There are a number of flatscreen TVs hanging from the walls and they all have one college basketball game or another. I find my buddy at the end of the bar, he’s already started on his first beer.
Sonoma Chicken Coop has about 6 beers on tap: a kölsch, hefeweizen, pale ale, brown ale, an ESB and their seasonal. This time of year, their seasonal is a called “Liam’s Irish Red Ale”. My buddy’s already drinking a brown ale and I go ahead an order the Irish Red Ale to start off.
Liam’s Irish Red Ale, Sonoma Chicken Coop
Liam’s pours out a clear, dark brown with reddish hues and a thin, white head. The aroma is malty with a slight nutty quality and low roast notes. Liams is malty sweet with an initial nutty character that is supported by a light roast component and balanced by a medium hop bitterness that lasts slightly into the finish but is not harsh. The beer is medium bodied with a matching carbonation level. I’m finding it is slightly dry and has a slight tannic astrigency. I am enjoying this beer immensely. The color is fantastic and what I love most about this beer is that it is carbonated and not on nitrogen, like so many other Irish beers.
I still remember the first time I tried a Sonoma Chicken Coop beer. I was there with a couple of other friends and I ordered the pale ale. I thought the bartender made a mistake as the beer didn’t taste like a pale ale. It was thin bodied and the flavor balance was decidedly malty. Where were the hops? I ordered the pale ale again to make sure the bartender poured from the correct tap and she did. I tried the beer again and it was exactly the same as my first beer. That’s when I stopped driking their beers.
Fast forward a few years later and I’m enjoying their beers. Their current brewmaster is Mike Barker and he’s been brewing for about 10 years or so. He started off brewing at Big Trees Brewing Company in 1997 (closed in 2001). After that he worked for Rock Bottom Brewery at their Chicago, Arlington and Campbell locations, followed by a stint at El Toro Brewing Company before settling down at Sonoma Chicken Coop. His signature style is his kölsch which he’s won multiple awards for.
ESB, Sonoma Chicken Coop
The next beer I try is their ESB. The ESB pour out a clear, brown color with ruby hues and amber highlights with an off-white head. When compared to the Liam’s Irish Red, the ESB seems a little lighter brown in color, not as red but with amber highlights. The ESB is also nutty, malty sweet and with a hop bitterness that is medium/medium-high. This is a medium bodied beer with medium-high carbonation. As I let the beer warm up some, I notice a powdery chocolate quality in the aroma.
The ESB seemed to be a little high on the hop bitterness. As a style it should be fairly balanced but a slight nod should be given towards hop flavor and bitterness. In any event, I thought it was a decent beer and I was enjoying it. When I compare it to the Liam’s, I enjoyed the Liam’s more.
While Sonoma Chicken Coop is primarily a self-service sort of place, you can order food at the bar and they’ll bring it out to you. Having had only a cup of soup that day, I order the calamari and the shrimp spaghettini. I have always enjoyed Chicken’s Coops calamari. They’re light, quick-fried I believe and served with a horseradish/marinara dipping sauce. My shrimp spaghettini is good but nothing too exciting. It had a slight bit of spicy heat while the shrimp seemed a tad bit overdone and the pasta slightly soft, not at all “al dente”. Still, I couldn’t complain because I killed everything on my plate. I contemplated ordering another beer but my buddy wanted to head out so we called it day at Sonoma Chicken Coop.
All together, the Campbell location of Sonoma Chicken Coop is a good place to grab a beer. While the food is no longer sub-$10, it is still reasonable and good. Their beers are a vast improvement over the first time I tried them and the crowd seemed to mainly be comprised of friendly locals. I will definitely be visiting this brewpub again.
JJ’s Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Boulevard, Santa Clara, CA
The live band that played at Sonoma Chicken Coop specialized in classic rock. After we left by buddy was in the mood to catch a live band but had no idea where to go. I suggested we hit up JJs Blues in Santa Clara and off we went.
JJs Blues is a tiny bar that specializes in live blues performances. It is discreetly tucked away in a stripmall next to an Army surplus store and an equally small pizzeria. Despite having eaten at the pizzeria (which is right next door to JJs) he has never been to or seen JJs before.
The two of us walk in and are greeted by the door girl who informs us there will be a $10 cover to see the band play. JJs is a dive bar. It is much longer than it is wide. The stage is up front where they have tall tables with barstools oriented toward the stage and even a little room for a dance floor. The bar is in the phycial center of the place and we grab a seat close to it. In the back is a pool table and a side room with couple of couches and music equipement strewn about. In the very back is the restrooms. The one thing you’ll notice about JJ’s is that there’s a lot of history up on them walls. A lot of people have come through to play at JJ’s and a lot of their photos are up on the walls. I’m amazed at how, despite appearances, significant JJ’s is with regards to the blues scene.
Pabst Blue Ribbon, Pabst Brewing Company
As you can imagine with any dive bar, the beer selection isn’t going to be very good. I decide to “slum” it that night and order a PBR. I didn’t take a photo of this beer for a number of reasons, the biggest being that everyone already knows what this beer looks like. PBR is a brilliantly clear, pale yellow beer with a white head. There is very little aroma, neither hops nor malt dominate. The flavor is very, very subtle. I get faint whispers of malty sweetness and no hop bitterness to speak of. This is a light bodied beer with high carbonation. It takes me a while to put this one away because it’s tastes a lot like tonic water only less good.
John Garcia is the blues artist performing that night and as soon as he plugs in he is tearing it up. The blues he is playing is more inline with traditional blues but there are a few songs that rock, some are funky while others are straight, depressing blues. I am in awe at his skill on the guitar and the range of styles he’s able to play. For many reasons, my buddy is really feeling the music. It’s touching him at his core and he comments that he’s not sure why. I tell him it’s because he just broke up with his lady and he’s feeling the blues.
MGD, Miller Brewing Company
Once again, no picture because you all know what this beer looks like. It’s a brilliantly clear, pale yellow beer with a white head. The aroma shows slight malt sweetness with an equal corn component and no noticeable hops. The flavor is much of the same, slightly malty sweet with a noticeable corn flavor and almost no discernable hops on the palette. This beer is also light in body and highly carbonated.
Unlike the PBR from before, I am enjoing the MGD more. I can actually taste something in this beer unlike the PBR. When I got back, I received a tweet from one of my followers who disagreed with me and said he perfers the PBR instead. Personally speaking, these are both beer styles I don’t normally like drinking but I prefer the MGD simply because there’s some emotional attachment to the beer. I used to drink MGDs a lot and there are a lot of good times associated with that beer, so I’ll always have a soft spot for that beer.
If you’re looking for a great place to catch the blues, JJ’s Blues in Santa Clara is a tough place to beat. It’s real divey so don’t expect a great selection of beers. Still, if you’re going to JJ’s, chances are you couldn’t give two-shits about the beer as it’s all about the blues.