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River Rock Tap House to open

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Two restaurateurs with a love of fine beer and coffee plan to open an alehouse in Midtown with a possible cafe and coffee-roasting operation next door.

Tex Mex Bar and Grill owner Mike Keolanui said he and his best friend, Anthony Priley, expect to replace Keolanui’s restaurant at 2326 J St. with a joint venture, River Rock Tap House, July 9.

They decided to team up again, about 17 years after they opened River Rock in Citrus Heights featuring 40 craft beers, on-site roasted coffee and food. Priley and his father, Steve, who co-founded Java City, owned River Rock. Keolanui was the general manager.

Within a month, they also hope to sign a lease for the space next door at 2330 J St., which most recently held a well-known breakfast spot called Cornerstone Restaurant, Keolanui said.

River Rock Cafe could open in a year focusing on coffee, tea and breakfast, but possibly offering over-the-counter lunch and dinner as well. A costly interior and exterior renovation would be done first.

The restaurants would be beverage-driven yet feature different menus. Keolanui would oversee the food at both spots. Steve Priley, who sold his interest in Sacramento-based Java City in 1993, would manage the coffee-roasting operation and its wholesale and retail coffee business. His son would manage the tap house’s craft beers: 40 to start and another 30 down the road.

"Tony has always been a visionary and sort of a ‘Rain Man’ when it comes to beer," Keolanui said. "If Tony’s the Rain Man of beer, his dad is the guru of coffee. He’s the Gandhi of coffee. That guy has got a huge following. He talks a different language."

He opened Tex Mex on J Street about nine months ago as a new location for Texas Mexican Restaurant, which was facing closure as part of a K Street Mall redevelopment project. Tex Mex did well, but Keolanui wants to try something new, he said.

"I got kind of burnt out on the Mexican food scene," he said. "There are so many Mexican restaurants down here."

He said he knew he wanted to feature craft beers. Brian Bennett, who co-owns Paul Martin’s American Bistro Restaurant in Roseville, came up with the idea for the "tap house" name and other ideas for the business, Keolanui said.

The list of beers is still being finalized. At least 80 percent will come from California and Oregon microbreweries. Classics like Guinness will also be on tap, Anthony Priley said.

West Coast brewers are developing their own style of high-quality beer using fresh hops grown nearby and more hops, which imparts more bitterness. Craft beer from the West Coast is gaining respect after developing its own style, just like California wines did in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

"There’s such quality and diversity right on the West Coast. It’s a more aggressive style of beer than you find on the East Coast, in the Midwest or even internationally," Priley said.

"The flavor profile of traditional English beer is smoother and sweeter – less bitter. A softer mouth feel than something with a lot of hops. The difference would be sweetness compared to a bitter flavor profile."

They’ll include many local beers from microbreweries such as Rubicon, Sudwerk in Davis, Roseville Brewing Company and Two Rivers Cider.

"I’m excited about the beer culture that’s developing here," he said. "Sacramento is becoming a very well-known beer culture throughout the region."

Priley has persuaded six former employees to come back one or two days a week as tap masters – sort of beer sommeliers – at a small second bar to be added. They will help train and educate customers as well as Keolanui’s existing staff about fine beer.

"It’s going to be this crazy restaurant Brady Bunch kind of thing. Tony and I are the parents and we just got married," Keolanui said.

River Rock Tap House hours will be 11 a.m. to midnight daily.

The tap house will start with a small menu that may include some food from Tex Mex and the original River Rock, such as a fresh fish sandwich and smoked salmon salad. They’ll introduce two or three new items each month and have food events driven by beer, such as ribs or brats and beer.

Items may include fried oyster nachos, crispy calamari with poblano sauce, summer grilled sausage with stone-ground mustard and a butcher’s board of meats and cheeses.

"The food itself is going to pair wonderfully with the beer," Keolanui said. "I think people will be surprised at how well beer goes on the palate with those items."


Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt. 

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