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Not long after the Flying Saucer opened in May 1998, it was the subject of a disparaging dining review in the daily newspaper. That led Shannon Wynne, the offbeat owner of the Texas-based mini-chain, to take out advertisements that proclaimed, "It's the beer, stupid."
The Saucer's menu has grown and diversified greatly since those days, and it is a surprisingly good place to grab a meal, particularly if you choose wisely. But the Flying Saucer, definitely the bell cow of River Market establishments, will always be about the beer — all 200 or so of them.
When the Saucer went non-smoking on July 1, it wasn't to make the place more pleasant for non-smoking beer lovers. It was so people younger than 21 could come in — which means the Saucer can capitalize on all the families who come to the River Market and when things like an FBLA high school convention are in town.
Besides the expected beer-friendly items like cheese dip and salsa ($5.99), nachos ($8.49), hot wings ($8.29), pizza slices ($4.99 and $5.99), soft pretzels ($7.29 for two) and chili, the Saucer also offers three salads ($3.99 and $7.49/$8.49 for entree size), bratwurst ($7.99 to $9.99), eight large, tasty sandwiches ($7.29 to $8.49 with choice of fries, hot German potato salad or side salad), meat and cheese combinations ($10.99 for three; $15.99 for five) and salmon with red onions, capers and goat cheese ($10.99).
It's an eclectic bar-food menu, with only one noticeable theme — bratwurst. We started with the bratwurst nachos — half taco shells individually and precisely dosed with brat hunks, refried beans, grated cheddar, jalapenos and tomatoes. (Chicken is the other meat choice.) Bratwurst works well in this cross-cultural appetizer, particularly with good, melty cheddar enveloping it. The beans thankfully were spread on thinly; there weren't enough tomato pieces to make a difference.
We also tried the chicken tenders ($7.49), which are solid but nothing special, except they come with some of the best thin, crisp, herb-dusted fries in town. The spicy beer cheese soup ($4.99 in a bread bowl) struck us as spicy, thinner cheese dip.
The Saucer slice ($4.99) is a very large, somewhat thick-crust piece of pepperoni pizza that is helped by some fresh basil but isn't up to the pies served next door at Gusano's; for $1 more you can choose three toppings among a list of 13 veggies and six meats (yes, the list includes bratwurst). The chili is also only decent, not nearing exceptional.
But there are some real stars on the Saucer menu. The Reuben-esque ($8.29) is well-named in that it is a take on the Reuben — pastrami vs. the usual corned beef and jalapeno-studded kraut. It is thick, juicy, cheesy and fabulous. The Pork Belly sandwich ($8.29) really is misnamed as it teams pulled pork, ham and bacon, the trio of pig meats topped with jalapeno-apple chutney, lettuce and tomato. It is creative, satisfying and well done in all ways.
The German Plate ($9.99) pairs one beer brat and one Usinger brand brat from a family-owned Milwaukee charcuterie founded in 1880, the duo of dogs served with hot German potato salad and sauerkraut. The Usinger (check them out at www.usinger.com) is firm, meaty and not overly greasy. (You can get it on a bun for $7.89.) The beer brat is a bit softer and plumper. They are both brats, but they are not too similar, which gives this meal some variety. The potato salad has a good vinegar bite.
Beer suggestions accompany each of the four meats and six cheeses you can select on the Hungry Farmer plate. The prosciutto is high-quality, as is the Finocchiona, dry-aged salami with fennel. The Red Dragon cheese is interesting — cheddar made with brown ale and studded with mustard seeds — and we are a sucker for Cotswold, a double Gloucester with chives.
Food sales at the Saucer are up significantly since the 21-and-older-only stipulation of being a smoking restaurant went away, management reports. And the food is solid — decent at worst, outstanding at best.
But again, the Saucer is all about the beer. No place has the variety, and another strength at the Saucer are the friendly, efficient, beer-knowledgeable waitresses.
About 600 "Beer Knurds" have consumed 200 different Saucer beers, qualifying for a personalized plate on the Saucer wall. (The 11th person to complete the feat is this review's author.) Most pints are $3 on Monday, all local Diamond Bear drafts are $3 on Sunday, and all but the $3 beers are $1 off 4-7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.Click here for hours and more information.