Before you even sink your teeth into the soft, elastic cheesesteak roll that serves as a trench where your rib-eye goes to die, the first thing you’ll notice about Brew Belly in Olney is the Bigfoot. Make that Bigfoots, plural.
There’s a Bigfoot on the building’s facade. He’s a good-time Sasquatch, swinging a sixer in one hand and cradling a bottle of suds in the other. Then there’s the giant ape’s Himalayan cousin, the yeti, who bares his jagged, electrified teeth in the hallway by the bathroom. There’s even a spicy yeti sauce, which I imagine is like Donkey Sauce that fell in with the wrong crowd.
If you ask owner Dave Calkins what’s up with all the mythic creatures, he has a quick answer. In fact, he’s been asked the question so often, he has typed out a stock response, titled “Why Bigfoot?” It says, more or less, that he’s a “believer” in folk tales and all the hairy critters that populate them.
His belief, writes Calkins, is about “the possibility of believing in things for no reason, even while being fully aware of and rational about the evidence. It is no different than having a sense of wonderment for other ‘legendary’ beings like ghosts, elves, leprechauns, mermaids, unicorns, etc.”
Okay, so Calkins’s statement won’t earn him a bust in the hall of great philosophers right next to Immanuel Kant. But I do like its sentiment. It seems to me that, with Brew Belly, Calkins has created space — both physical and mental — where you can drop the cynical social-media facade for a second and act like a kid again. He even supplies board games to ease you into the transition. On a column over by the wine racks, there’s an apology posted to a felt letter board: “Dear Naps, I’m sorry I was a jerk to you as a kid.”
Yes, it’s easy to love Brew Belly.
Housed in a building (with dormer windows) that looks like it got lost on its way to the English countryside, Brew Belly has a man-caveish quality to it — TVs turned to sporting events, a beer menu mostly dedicated to Maryland suds and foods that come in various shades of brown. Did I mention the Bigfoot motif?
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Calkins is also a founder of Urban Bar-B-Que, the small smokehouse chain that partnered with Ledo Pizza in 2013 to fuel a major expansion, which now includes a location at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Although it pursues a dude agenda similar to Urban’s, Brew Belly feels like Calkins’s return to something less corporate and more personal. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to stay and drink more beer, perhaps against your better judgment. I mean, for many of us, it’s a long damn drive home from Olney.
The beer list makes it all too easy to keep quaffing. Curated by Calkins, the brews include 24 taps whose rusty tool handles look like they were swiped from the set of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The draft lines tap into some of Maryland’s finest breweries, including DuClaw, Jailbreak, Oliver and Reckless Ale Works. I instantly fell for Reckless’s Illustrious Buddha, a cloudy, New England-style IPA that, mercifully, trades more on its grapefruit aromas than its bitterness units and alcohol wallop. Jailbreak’s White Russian, a coffee cream ale, is good enough to inspire “Big Lebowski” riffs. Like, dude, that beer really ties the meal together.
Ben Schwartz, former executive chef for Urban, is in command of the kitchen. He’s also a partner in the business. Despite a limited menu mostly focused on cheesesteaks and poutine, Schwartz finds ways to inject a chef’s touch. His classic cheesesteak starts with a fresh, cornmeal-dusted roll from Amoroso’s in Philadelphia, which is layered with chopped rib-eye and onions caramelized with butter, beer, thyme and garlic. The fillings are then bound with a housemade whiz sauce, a bechamel infused with beer and three kinds of cheese, including Velveeta to, you know, keep it real. It’s the best cheesesteak for miles in any direction.
The more conceptualized cheesesteaks can suffer by comparison, particularly the Seoul-style one, a bulgogi variation whose gochujang mayo doesn’t pack enough heat to remind anyone of Korea. The veg-head cheesesteak — yes, that’s the name — is a more satisfying sandwich. Its roll comes densely packed with mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and caramelized onions, which combine to mimic the complex Maillard-reaction flavors of grilled meat better than you would expect. I think it helps that a traditional cheesesteak doesn’t offer much resistance to begin with, so the vegetables are not under pressure to provide a meaty chew.
Elsewhere on the menu, Schwartz serves up a mean basket of fries, featuring slender lengths of skin-on russets, which are soaked in salt water and then double-fried for a proper crunch. Should you order the spuds as part of a poutine basket, be sure to have extra hands around the table: The baskets can easily feed three. But more important, these cheesy potato dishes go downhill fast, as I discovered with my Boardwalk poutine, a Maryland riff on the classic. The cheese sauce, mixed with backfin crab and a J.O. spice blend, not only starts to congeal after awhile, but it also slowly strips the crunch right out from those fries. But for 10 glorious minutes, the Boardwalk poutine is killer.
Open since November, Brew Belly is still a work in progress. Calkins continues to build out his bar program, which will specialize in barrel-aged spirits. Look for it to launch in February. Meanwhile, Schwartz needs to firm up his kitchen prep. He doesn’t always have enough housemade Hunter sausages to toss one on his charcuterie board, which is something of a snooze without it. But here’s an idea: Use the spicy mustard (or the queso fundido) instead for the jumbo soft pretzel, a steer-wheeling-size bread knot that hangs from a banana hook.
There’s a bit of high-wire drama every time an employee carries that dangling pretzel to a table. Part of the charm, I think, is the paradox of the plating: It’s Alinea meets Nationals Park. That jumbo soft pretzel, I’d suggest, is channeling some serious Bigfoot spirit.
18065 Georgia Ave., Olney, Md., 240-389-1927, brewbelly.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $6 to $12 for all menu items.