the Goliard
June 2002

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Restaurant Reviews 

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Thunder Canyon Brewery

Thunder Canyon Brewery, despite being wedged between factory outlet stores in a depressing shopping mall, offers a mildly decent brew pub experience. It features some creative and tasty menu items, several excellent homemade beers, and a cool and aromatic, if somewhat yuppified interior that can make you quickly forget that you were shopping at Vitamin World or Dress Barn only minutes before. And since many Goliard readers are mainly interested in cold ale, we will tell you right up front that the Thunderhead IPA compares favorably to any we’ve tried around the country and TCB will be happy to fill a growler for you to take home, providing of course, that it is one of their growlers. We came across this loophole the hard way the other night when we made the mistake of bringing in a foreign growler from out of state. We were returned our empty bottle and informed that filling an alien jug was against Arizona liquor laws. If this is, in fact, the truth, it wouldn't surprise us all that much as liquor laws traditionally make little sense but it seemed a ridiculous policy to enforce all the same.

TCB owners John and Roxane Nielsen reportedly got started in the brew pub scene in the early nineties up in Prescott when they opened the Prescott Brewing Co. (which, when we visited in 1995 or so, we found to be a great little spot right on the town square which served excellent food and felt like home away from home ). TCB shows some of the same attributes even though it is sandwiched between outlet stores. The walls are pleasantly adorned with antique beer trays, the ceilings vaulted and high with skylights, and the bar area is spacious and well suited for televised sports viewing or, if you prefer, live people watching. One of us enjoys going to TCB just to observe all the couples that have obviously just been to a movie together at the adjacent megaplex and are trying to enjoy a night out despite themselves.

The working brewery itself is also visible through a side window and produces the eight or so draughts that are available daily. With four standard flagship brews: sandstone cream ale, desert amber, Catalina pale ale and obsidian porter, being the mainstays, they usually also feature an IPA, a stout, a fufu fruity thing, a wheat, and seasonal offerings such as a lager or pilsner. Being devout pale ale drinkers we can tell you that the Catalina Pale is passable and the IPA outstanding when available. We just wish we had remembered the proper growler so we could be enjoying one right now while slogging through this review.

Unfortunately, like many establishments these days, TCB, which is located at 7401 North La Cholla Boulevard in the Foothills Mall, has trouble putting good help on the floor. We continue to patronize the place even after periodic battles with sub par service because the food is consistently good, the menu ever evolving with new items to compliment the tried and true, and the atmosphere generally pleasant. However, if you are unlucky enough to draw one of their many dimwitted servers, the experience can quickly become not worth the drive.

On a recent visit, we walked in and the hostess looked at us like she was absolutely stunned that anyone could be coming through the door desiring a place to sit, let alone something to eat. Once she got over the shock, she marched us off past empty comfortable booths to the most awkward table in the room, which jutted into an aisle and was crammed by a busser's station. When we balked at the seating she muttered something about "needing to seat people in the right sections" and we were led back from whence we had come, snaking through the diners to a spot near the front. The waitress, whose section we had apparently been placed in under duress, eventually showed up to see about drinks. Once she delivered them and took an impatient food order, she was gone for good.

One of the best things about Thunder Canyon is they typically bring you a delicious loaf of warmed bread accompanied by honey butter if you are ordering something substantive. Actually, we're not sure how they decide who gets the bread because it is not consistent and seems to be up to the discretion of the server. Sometimes they bring it if you simply order a salad and other times it doesn't come even with an elaborate entrée. Anyway, we didn't get any this last time and since our waitress had "phased out" before we got a chance to know her we didn't ask her about it.

The servers at Thunder Canyon, though some of them are quite pleasant and capable, seem completely obsessed with sections and shift work and who's getting off when. Perhaps this is a drawback of having to field a large staff but never the less. Numerous times we've been caught up in this changing of the guards where one waitron unit will start by taking your order only to give way to a sweaty kitchen person or officious manager who later shows up toting your rapidly cooling food. Then, long after you were ready for a forgotten condiment or topping off of beverage, another server will arrive and announce that "Amber is being sent home so I will be taking over your table."

Restaurateurs need to figure out that most people don't care who waits on them but would simply like someone to be consistently available for, what an old manager of ours used to call “table maintenance” i.e. to refill a beer or ice tea now and then and maybe answer a question. More often then not, the customer gets lost in these exchanges and, many times, we have ended up scanning the room in vain for the gal who took our order in hopes of securing a second IPA only to later find her sitting in street clothes on a stool enjoying a cream ale of her own once we were finally forced to get up and approach the bar ourselves. Patrons mostly don't understand and certainly don't care about the intricacies of staff scheduling but the Thunder Canyon help often seems to feel the need to fill you in on who is getting off early and who will be looking after your table now that the person you started with has gone home. Most customers just want some food and drink served in a timely, non-interruptive way, by someone who looks remotely familiar, not an explanation of where the sections are, a round of introductions of interchangeable servers all scrambling to complete their side work early so they can turn over their tables to this person or that and escape the Hell that must be their jobs. This problem is not specific to this eatery and seems to plague many a restaurant in these parts.

The menu at Thunder Canyon covers a wide range of styles and features wood fired pizzas, tasty vegetarian fare such as enchiladas, veggie burgers, and creative salads, traditional pub food such as cottage pie and fish and chips, along with sandwiches, steaks, shrimp dishes, and pasta. The quality does not seem to suffer too much from all the diversity and everything we've tried has been above average. The seasonal changes are always welcome and the chefs do a good job with specials and southwest themes serving from an open kitchen that seems well run and always gets the food out promptly (perhaps too promptly as it's not uncommon for a server to arrive with your appetizer to find a manager already standing at your table with your entree). But there we go on the service again. Go with friends, enjoy some of Tucson's best brewed ales and try to relax a little. Just make sure you aren't in Liz's section while Buffy phases out so Amber can cover for Molly while she transfers her checks to Drew so that Timmy can get out of there early for the party at Ashleigh's house.

Thunder Canyon Brewery is located at 7401 North La Cholla Boulevard in the Foothills Mall. Their phone number is 520-797-2652.

Ed's Note - This review was originally written in June of 2002 and we have visited Thunder Canyon numerous times since then and found the service to be slightly improved on the floor at times although there now seems to be an arrogance to the bar staff that is unjustified. It used to be that the bartenders offered pleasant respite from the bumbling, scrambling staff and if you wanted to grab a stool you could count on friendly relaxed service. They now seem to think they are the cat's meow. Perhaps they are who knows but it makes sitting belly up a fairly annoying experience. -  March 2003

Further Ed's Note - We revisited Thunder Canyon in Fall 2005 - Review here

Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.