Restaurant Reviews

BJ’s proves to be crowd-worthy

The popular new BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse is so new, it’s still being overwhelmed with crowds that are testing the abilities of the just-trained kitchen and staff. It opened in mid-July in a giant, just-built space at the high-profile intersection of Kellogg and Rock Road. Employees meet the challenge some days better than others, but if you go with an open mind — knowing that it’s too soon for things to be flawless — BJ’s is a fun place to have a drink and a bite. BJ’s is part of a California-based chain that has restaurants across the country.

ON THE MENU: BJ’s menu is a bit bewildering. It’s a spiral-bound book with page after page after page of choices that include bar food favorites such as nachos and wings, plus flatbread pizzas, deep-dish pizzas, pastas, burgers, seafood, steaks, baked potatoes, salads and an amazing dessert called the Pizookie. The food has American, Asian, Southwestern and Italian influences. In short, BJ’s has everything, which typically makes it not only difficult for a diner to choose what to order but also for the restaurant to do any one thing particularly well.

But so far, BJ’s is doing OK. On multiple visits, we had mostly good food and mostly good service. Once it’s had a little more time to work out the kinks, BJ’s will no doubt rival Texas Roadhouse and Olive Garden for the title of Wichita restaurant mostly likely to have a wait for tables that never ends.

DON’T MISS DISHES: Any trip to BJ’s should begin with a pull of one of its handcrafted pints ($4.95). The bar has several delicious beers, from a hefeweizen to an IPA, and seasonal varieties rotate in and out. The beer, incidentally, is not brewed at the individual BJ’s restaurants but at a facility in Texas.

Among the dishes we most loved was the star of the appetizer menu: the avocado egg rolls. They feature crispy fried wonton wrappers stuffed with chunky avocado, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, pine nuts and chipotle pepper and come with a side of tamarind sauce. The center is creamy, rich and oozing with fresh flavor.

A serving of three egg rolls sliced into six servings is $9.75, which represents something about BJ’s that I wonder how Wichita will accept. In many cases, the prices are a bit higher than what’s typical for the type of food BJ’s is serving.

From the appetizer menu, we also made two other great choices, including the wings, which are meaty and served bone-in or boneless with a variety of sauce choices, ranging from barbecue to teriyaki to hot and spicy. We chose the mild bone-in wings, which were excellent with the side of ranch that accompanied them. A serving of 10 was $9.25.

Also superb: A California Club flatbread pizza ($9.50) topped with grilled chicken, Applewood smoked bacon, tomatoes, mozzarella and diced avocado. The long, rectangular pizza resides on the appetizer menu but was perfect as a meal. And it’s a good alternative for pizza lovers who don’t want the heaviness of a deep-dish pizza.

Deep-dish pizzas, though, are one of BJ’s specialties, and they are served on thick, bready crust that manages not to be greasy. We tried a small BJ’s classic combo topped with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and seasoned tomatoes. The small was $13.50. Mini-sizes cost about $10. Mediums are around $19, and larges are about $23. A small was enough for two, and the pizza was delicious.

Several dishes we tried on various visits emerged from the kitchen clear victims of sitting under the heat lamp too long as stressed-out servers attended to the insane dining room. Our order of fettuccine Alfredo with nicely seasoned chicken breast ($9.50) would have been fine if it were warmer, and our teriyaki salmon ($16.75) had a nice Asian flavor, but the fish was dried out.

The biggest disappointments were the baby back ribs, which cost $17.25 and were beyond dry, and an order of nachos ($9.25) that were little more than chips topped with generic chili and cheese that were in desperate need of salsa and guacamole, neither of which were offered.

A real treat at BJ’s is its signature dessert, called a Pizookie (a combination of the words “pizza” and “cookie”). They’re buttery cookies baked in mini cast-iron pizza dishes and topped with two scoops of ice cream. We ordered the white chocolate macadamia nut version, which was enough to give a few decadent bites to five people. Pizookies also are available in chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, red velvet and cookies and cream. They’re all $5.95, but the restaurant offers a free mini-Pizookie to anyone celebrating a birthday.

AMBIANCE: The dining room is cavernous and attractive, with a modern design. It’s divided into a large bar with lots of tables and booths and an even larger dining room with two separate areas. One nice thing — bar seats are first-come, first-served and are just as comfortable as those in the dining room. The most striking and dramatic feature of BJ’s is the wall behind the bar, which stretches to the ceiling and is rimmed with glowing, colored glass.

PRICE RANGE: On the expensive side. Appetizers are $8.50 to $10.50. Burgers are $8.95 to $11.25. Entrees are $9.95 to $19.95. The handcrafted beers are $5 a pint, but other beers are significantly higher. And a decent glass of wine can’t be had for less than $8.50, which is why I plan to visit BJ’s on a Tuesday — half-price wine night — in the future.

SERVICE: On all of our visits, our servers were clearly overtaxed and struggling. But all were competent, friendly and willing to fix problems and take back overdone steaks without a question.