Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Because of our focus on home-grown dining options, we don't review many chain restaurants here, but we decided to make an exception in the case of BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. BJ's comes to Arkansas with a large menu of house beers at a time when interest in craft beer is growing, and while nothing we tried at the large Shackleford Crossing restaurant will turn us away from local options like Diamond Bear, Vino's or Core Brewing, we were pleased with both the food and the drink that the California-based chain is serving.
The BJ's menu is big, with page after page of beer, drinks, appetizers, main courses and desserts — so big, in fact, that we were a little intimidated when it came to ordering. We decided on a beer flight of four 5-ounce tasters ($6.50) and the BJ's Frito Nachos ($7.25), because what better way is there to prepare for a beer-drinking session than scarfing down a glorified Frito chili pie? Did we say glorified? We meant glorious — a piled-high combination of chili, cheese, Fritos, sour cream and bacon (yes, bacon) that is not cardiologist-approved, but certainly tasted good. As for the beer, we were particularly fond of the Harvest Hefeweizen, a light, crisp wheat beer that went down smoothly, with a bright citrus flavor. The other beers in our flight, the LightSwitch Lager, Jeremiah Red and Brewhouse Blonde were all decent, if not memorable, although fans of Bud Light or Coors will find a lot to like here.
After the massive Frito concoction and our first four tasters, we were already getting full, and our next dish, BJ's Favorite Pizza ($15.25 for a 9-inch) sealed the deal. This deep-dish pie was piled with meatballs, pepperoni, onions, Italian sausage, mushrooms and black olives, all resting atop a crisp, buttery crust and served in a deep-dish pan. We're not normally fans of deep-dish pizza, but this was a tasty pie, with the Italian sausage coming in as our favorite ingredient. We paired the pizza with the HopStorm IPA ($2.25 for a 5-ounce taster), and were impressed by the malty richness of the beer, but we feel obligated to tell certified hop-heads that this is perhaps the mildest IPA we've ever tasted.
In addition to the pizza, we wanted to try another bar classic, so we ordered a Crispy Jalapeno Burger ($10.25), and were again impressed with the food from the brewhouse. This was a large burger with pepperjack cheese and crisp-fried jalapenos, but where BJ's really won our hearts was with the perfectly cooked medium-well patty, something we can't normally get on a consistent basis from even our best Little Rock burger joints. The thin french fries served with the burger were mostly forgettable, and our beer pairing, the Tatonka Stout, was our most disappointing brew of the day. We liked that the stout was poured from a nitro tap, because we're big fans of the creaminess that nitrogen adds to beer, but this beer was a one-note song, and that song consisted of overwhelming notes of sweet chocolate and burnt coffee — things that are good in moderation but here took over.
Our final verdict? After going into this review somewhat suspicious of a chain restaurant with such an extensive menu, we have to admit that we very much enjoyed BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. As at other chain breweries we've visited, the beer at BJ's isn't all that challenging, but that can be a bonus for beer lovers who want to introduce friends and family to the world of craft beer. The food, while fattening, was really good, and we were particularly impressed with the restaurant's skill with cooking our burger the way we like it and getting the pizza crust just right in terms of the balance between crispy and chewy. The place stands out from similar chain restaurants like Applebee's, TGIFriday's or Chili's, and will be our go-to restaurant of choice for whenever we have a diverse group of people with varying tastes who need a place to eat.