A pub is where you can get some decent grub and a good beer to wash it down.

A gastropub is where you can pair a great beer with great food from a menu stripped of its chicken wings and jalapeño poppers.

At least that's the verdict after visiting one of several beer-and-food joints in and around Tucson that call themselves "gastropubs."

Noble Hops Gastropub is named for the flower that gives beer its "hoppy" flavor. Its website calls it a "place for foodies."

We four food lovers found it definitely so.

First, let's set the table.

Noble Hops sits at the east end of an upscale strip mall in Oro Valley - one of those places where the stucco is faced in rock.

It has a patio on the east, shaded from the afternoon sun, and a bar that is half al fresco and half whatever the Italian word is for inside.

The patio has gas heaters, one of those fire pits with gas jets hidden beneath stones, and a stunning view of Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

At 5 p.m. on a December eve, we chose the patio, and regretted our decision by 6 p.m. By that time, a wiser happy-hour crowd had filled the inside tables and we sunset watchers were stuck out in the cold with only the fire pit, our beer, wine and food to console us.

We were happy.

Beer first, because the place is called Noble Hops and because beer is God's gift to the world.

Noble Hops has 28 draft beers on a rotating menu, priced at $4 to $6 a pint. All are from microbreweries, with a growing contribution from Arizona. Co-owner Aric Mussman said the pub plans to brew its own beers eventually.

It has an extensive list of bottled beers, mostly from small breweries. It also sells mass-produced American beer, Mussman said. Most gastropubs won't serve Bud Lite, but he figured Oro Valley was not downtown Denver.

I'm a lager/pilsner/pale ale guy. I don't like fruit or chocolate or vanilla or any other damn thing in my beer. I don't do stout or porter, though I'll go as far as IPA (India Pale Ale). I chose a pint of Czechvar pilsner because the Czechs invented pilsner. Tasty, though not great.

Lee ordered the Wasatch Squatter's Outer Darkness. It came in a 12-ounce glass because its alcohol content is an amazing 10.5 percent.

He pronounced it good and described it in a later email as "a velvety licorice whisper of a dark beer."

I tasted and pronounced it good for a beer too stout to do more than sip. I don't sip.

The ladies - my wife, Ginny, and Lee's wife, Susan - ordered tap wine from the keg. The cabernet and zinfandel were quite good.

Meanwhile, our helpful waitress directed us to the pub favorites.

We had the Bavarian pretzels ($7), which we wouldn't have ordered without her prodding, but were glad we did. Don't expect knots. These pretzels looked like two small loaves of bread.

They were deliciously crispy and rock-salted, with a chewy, pretzel-like interior. They came with a pungent cheese sauce and a mound of mustard that is stone-ground on the premises. The pretzels are shipped from Germany.

We ordered one soup to share. It was a Wisconsin Cheese Beer Bisque ($5), with a "creamy cheddar cheese & maple glazed bacon compote," according to the menu. Ginny is not a fan of cheese soup. She was a fan of this one. We all regretted that we hadn't ordered the butternut squash soup as well.

We also ordered a cheese board, banger kabobs and porcini-dusted gnocchi.

The cheese board ($15) featured a tasty cheddar from Wales, a wine-soaked drunken goat cheese and a Manchego, both from Spain. They would have gone nicely with the olives on the menu, but I forgot to order the olives.

The cheese came with a nice bed of fresh-looking baby lettuce leaves and a few tomatoes. The quality of the greens led us to believe the four salads on the menu would also be good.

The banger kabobs ($9) were three whole sausages served on a bed of sauerkraut salad. The sauerkraut bed was a twin. I wanted a king, or at least a queen. We fought over it.

The gnocchi ($9) were ambrosial, melt-in-your-mouth, little mounds of potato in a creamy gorgonzola cheese sauce. All four of us raved.

Noble Hops also has entrees and we felt compelled to split one at this point - and to order another beer.

Lee found one of his favorite beers on the menu - a Velvet Merlin from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, Calif.

I chose the Modus Hoperandi IPA from Ska brewery in Durango, Colo. IPAs can be too bitter or too aromatic. Mine was neither.

We ordered the Drunken Chicken ($16), keeping with the spirit of things - best chicken I've ever eaten.

The half-chicken's skin was dark and crispy without being tough. The meat was moist. The chicken is marinated in beer, cooked in a smoker and finished in a roasting oven.

It came with roasted pumpkin and sautéed vegetables, all infused with a malt cream sauce.

For desert, we ordered the chocolate board ($10). Good truffles and things, not quite enough for four, accompanied by a ribbon of sweetened whipped cream and chocolate crumbles.

Lee and Susan were drawn back to the place a few days later at lunchtime.

His report:

"My dahling was pleased to get the portabella veggie burger ($10), which was livened up w/roasted peppers, havarti cheese, crushed walnuts, greens and herb aioli.

"Here's the surprise: She ate the whole thing! This is a first in the 15 years of her hunting for a good burger alternative.

"It's time to talk about the Wisconsin Bacon Jam Cheeseburger ($10), recommended by the waitress.

"Bacon jam?! Are you kidding me? But the beauty is that every bite is bacon-flavored, and it can't fall out. Add some smoked aioli, a thick slice of cheese, all on a good, solid kaiser roll and, voila! a thoroughly tasty, juicy yet manageable burger!"

Even familiar food is fairly fancy at Noble Hops, but what's not to love about fish and chips with a caper-lemon sauce and three-citrus aioli?

Mussman credits chef Angel Fabian. "Everything Angel does, he kicks it up a notch."

For all its fancy food, it's a friendly, casual place where you can sit at the 30-foot bar and watch a football game.

Just don't ask for a side of ranch dressing for dipping your escargot or ahi.


• What: Noble Hops, 1335 W. Lambert Lane, Oro Valley, 797-4677

• Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily; until midnight Friday and Saturday.

• Wine list: Eight available by the glass, in addition to a selection of bottled wine.

• Noise level: Televisions for sports viewing; quieter on the patio.

• Vegetarian options: Butternut squash soup and spaghetti squash entree, salads, cheese boards and a killer portabella veggie burger.

• Family call: Leave the kids at home.

• Reservations: Not taken.

• Price range: Small plates, $4 to $18; entrees, $12 to $22.

The search for great beer and pub grub continues. If you have suggestions or questions, contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.