I had heard mixed reviews about the food at HopCat, the behemoth beer bar on Bardstown Road that stirred parking controversy for about a year leading up to its opening this past summer. After having a meal there myself, I think I understand why the reviews have been mixed.
HopCat, a Michigan-based chain, makes its living catering to the craft beer crowd. The expansive location in the Highlands is two stories and 12,000 square feet, with three different bars, plus added dining areas and 132 taps pouring all manner of beers; there also is a bourbon list about the same size, in case beer isn’t your thing. Oh, and there’s also food.
And to me, that’s the thing: HopCat is marketed and operated primarily as a craft beer bar. The menu consists of fairly standard pub offerings like burgers, sandwiches, appetizers and pizzas, so there’s nothing really noteworthy here that would stir a feeding frenzy.
Most items check in at about 10 or 12 bucks each, with a few interesting choices ranging from pizza rolls to the signature Crack Fries, plus a couple of soups and salads. Brunch is served on Saturday and Sunday.
According to the menu, the Crack Fries were at some point voted among the top 10 french fries in America by Food Network Magazine. You can get them with cheese sauce for dipping, loaded like nachos or as part of a poutine appetizer.
I was with a group of colleagues during a weekday lunch, which was quite slow given we were there right in the lunchtime sweet spot; we were one of maybe three or four parties at the place, which made HopCat seem even bigger than it actually is (and that’s saying something).
After perusing the somewhat cluttered menu, I decided on the Bar Zee Burger — a HopCat signature — along with a side of the much ballyhooed fries. Two of my lunch partners, Mark and Brian, ordered, respectively, the HopCat BLT and a reuben with corned beef and sauerkraut (there also are options of roasted turkey, pastrami and/or sesame-citrus slaw).
While our server was friendly and happy to talk with us about the beer available — including an experimental IPA by Founder’s Brewing that had just been tapped — it did take a good 20 or so minutes for the food to come out. It was good to know it was all made to order, but it did seem conspicuously long for a lunchtime when there were so few customers.
But we talked business, and soon our sandwiches emerged from the kitchen. They certainly looked the part; Brian’s reuben was particularly impressive, with a hearty pile of corned beef and kraut stuffed between two thick slices of marble rye. He made quick work of the sandwich and confirmed it was quite good, even if he did note that the rye got soggy fairly quickly.
Mark, however, commented that the BLT — which also was served on the rye — was dominated too heavily by the bread. Indeed, the bread-to-contents ratio of the BLT was markedly different than that of the reuben, which had Mark tearing away the crusts of the bread to try and mitigate the discrepancy.
The bacon seemed to almost disappear in comparison to the rye, and the tomato wasn’t exactly dominant either.
“I’m a two-pounds-of-bacon guy,” he said.
I will say this: The burger I was served was a good 8 ounces of beef cooked quite close to the medium-rare I ordered (maybe just leaning a tad toward medium), and it filled the bill.
The signature Bar Zee comes topped with the standard lettuce, onion and tomato, as well as jalapeno slices, bacon and something called “bar cheese,” a cheese spread of sorts with a horseradish kick. The burger was sloppy, flavorful and actually carried a little spice to it. Quite nicely balanced and filling.
Unfortunately, the Crack Fries were disappointingly dry, perhaps even slightly overcooked in a coating made with beer, cracked pepper, some other unidentified spices, and a lot of salt. Mark noted that the missing ingredient was the cheese sauce, which apparently isn’t included when the fries are served as a side instead of an appetizer.
We asked our server to bring some of the cheese dip, and sure enough, the fries suddenly became far more pleasant. Top 10 in the nation? Well, I really can’t say I’d go along with that, but they improved once the sauce (which tasted much like a mild beer cheese) was brought into the mix.
They might work better loaded and/or in poutine, as that serving style would certainly help balance the dryness. Or, as I said, maybe we just got a batch that was a tad overcooked.
All in all, HopCat’s food was not bad. Was it great? Well, no. It very much tastes like chain food, although chain food that is trying really hard to not come across as chain food.
Which is to say that, if you go to HopCat to have a few beers with friends and explore the many options, not to mention the kitschy, music-themed decor, it won’t be the end of the world if you arrive hungry. I would eat the Bar Zee again, and I would certainly give that rueben a shot. But if/when I go back, it will most certainly be primarily for the beer.
HopCat, at 1064 Bardstown Road, is open Sunday, 10 a.m.-midnight; Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m.