As Hop Valley is basically where this blog started, for me, I figured it was an appropriate place to re-start it in the new year. The restaurant has gone through at least two major menu changes since I initially reviewed it in 2010, and the newest menu is one I'm happy to discuss (unlike the middle menu).
Gone is the heavy book of many choices. Instead, the new menu [in PDF] is exactly what one expects of a brewpub: a single, large, heavy piece of paper, often slightly drink-stained, listing a few predictable categories of fare: appetizers, pizzas, burgers, entrees, salads, and sandwiches. The back is filled with still solid beer choices and a few specials (burger and brew for $8.95 on Sunday). Luckily, Hop Valley hasn't abandoned what made it a good place to dine in the beginning: there's still good beer, there's still a great happy hour, and there are still just enough small, thoughtful culinary touches to keep that predictable list of foods enticing.
One theme of the whole menu has always been beer, and now it's again quite visible in the Ale-Battered onion rings, fried fish, and chicken strips. (The onion rings, which are small enough for easy handling and devouring, sweet enough for even those who don't particularly like the onion part of the equation, and in a generous enough portion for sharing, are particularly good). Other offerings have beer references in the title (the Braumeister burger, the Brewben, and the Hoppin' Cobb Salad), but other than a possible splash of ale in the house-made bread or the addition of beer to both regular soups (Bacon Beer Cheese and Brew-House Chili), most of these seem like plays on words. What's nice, though, is that every dish on the menu is, really, good food to go with the good beer on the back. The servers are generally able to recommend a specific matching brew for whatever you're eating -- assuming, as often happens, you've finished your first by the time the food arrives.
Which brings us to the first rule of Hop Valley Club: You should probably get a beer or, at least, try the smokey house root beer.
Several old favorites have stayed: the smoked mozzarella sticks are still around, joined now by Jalapeno Cream Cheese Hush Puppies and a sausage sampler platter. That last, along with offerings like the new, tasty Chicken Schnitzel sandwich, indicate a lean toward Bavarian cuisine that's interesting and, perhaps, Oktoberfest inspired. (I do miss the soft pretzels on this menu). My favorite dish -- the macaroni and cheese -- has also been re-imagined, returning closer to its original menu roots. Gone is the last menu's offered macaroni and cheese topped with duck breast -- an interesting idea, but one that priced what had been my favorite entree out of reach. Now, the mac and cheese is creamy and well-made with smoked gouda, and you can splurge and add Andouille sausage, chicken, or broccoli for $2.
The tuna sandwich that was C's staple before is still around, though it's been given a facelift, too: it's now chili-rubbed and comes with lemon aioli, tomato relish, and a side of house-made chips or fries. For $13, it's not a cheap sandwich, but it's not a bad price for the substantial and perfectly rare tuna you get.
Sandwiches, in fact, seem to have earned the biggest renewal: there's a Cuban sandwich that's lean and lightly sauced, a Dagwood that promises German bologna, turkey, and ham, the turkey (Hoppin') club, and a BLT with candied bacon, each for just at $10. The burgers, which come either cooked normally or smoked pink, also hover near the $10 range, as do the new (and as-yet untested, for us) Pizzettas. (My vegetarian heart is sad to see the Garden Burger gone, but I'm choosing to see it as an excuse to Eat More Mozzarella Sticks).
The best bargain here, though, is still at Happy Hour, the menu for which is pictured at right. Offered 3-6 weekdays and 10-close Sunday through Thursday, this is a worthwhile place to stop after a cheap movie at the Gateway Mall or just on your way home from work. The burger remains the best value on the menu -- $5 for a 1/2 of local, never-frozen beef, with chips? Even with the additional charge for cheese, it's almost enough to turn me back to omnivore status... or it would be, if those mozz sticks weren't so darned tasty.
Hours: Open until at least midnight, usually, with happy hour specials after 10
Location: 490 Kruse Way in Springfield (behind IHOP, off of Gateway/I-5)