Pull-Out-All-the-Stops Birthday Brunch – Taps Fishouse & Brewery, Brea

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca
The way we celebrate birthdays is affected first by our own family’s traditions, then naturally evolves by the force of our personal maturity, external factors like friends and acquaintances, and of course, the diaspora of your nuclear family across the country or, in some cases, around the globe.

When we are children, birthdays are a bigbigbig huge deal. You celebrate first with your classmates, sent to school with homemade cupcakes, the tupperware far too enormous to fit into a backpack, the lid completely smeared with frosting because it jostled and jumped over every bump on the bus even though you cradled it like it was your first Cabbage Patch Kid. Later, you celebrate at home with your family when Mom makes your favorite dish (but no vegetables!) during followed by a tiny candyfat frosted birthday cake sprinkled with sugar and set ablaze with five candles. Then on the weekend, you have a mini-fiesta with your playmates that could rival the County Fair, complete with ridiculous hats, birthday cake and ice cream, games, a piñata, and garage sale fodder birthday gifts.

As we get older, into our teen years, we are “too old” for that kiddie stuff, though we still have parties (like a Sweet Sixteen) and receive more expensive gifts (I never got a car, but friends did). And finally, when you are old enough, you throw parties for yourself, and at some point, it becomes the anniversary of your 29th birthday and you simply go out to dinner with close friends.

You may not be around your family anymore. Family birthdays become a care package or a delivery of a gift from Amazon, a birthday card in the mail, a phone call, and when we really get sucked into the vortex of our daily lives, an email or a text message. Celebrating your birthday together with your family is as faded as the Polaroid of you blowing out your candles.

But I am lucky. Or maybe my family is weird. We still celebrate birthdays like it’s 1981.

I mentioned earlier that the utter meaninglessness of the “holiday” notwithstanding, February 14th doesn’t have much meaning to me because my Dad’s birthday is two days later, and in my Delicious world, celebrating my Dad’s birthday on the 16th overrides any manufactured holiday. However important my Dad’ birthday is, of tantamount importance is another birthday, and it’s not for a dead president. My brother-in-law James turned thirty-something on February 24th. Happy Birthday, James!

So what does this mean? Our entire family got together for a birthday brunch an entire afternoon of hanging out in birthday style.

My two sisters, their husbands and I all live in West LA, but our parents live in Orange County. One would assume that it would be far less complicated for two people to hop into a car and blast up the 5 freeway than to mobilize a half dozen people including a three-month old baby and haul the entire squadron outfitted with no less than a stroller, playpen and bags bursting at the seams with diapers and infant formula all the way down to the OC. It is easier, but we went down there at Dad’s request anyway because, well, that’s what you do when your Dad calls himself “The Captain.”

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca
what’s on tap? birthdays in brea

We had a 12:30 reservation at Taps Fishouse and Brewery in Brea, less than a five-minute drive from my parents’ house. Sunday afternoons, Brea is a three ring circus, with the entire comunity descending upon the relatively new downtown area that has movie theaters, large chain retail stores, and McRestaurants that positively scream “Th OC!!” Taps is right there in the thick of it. Our cavalcade of cars pulled up to the valet (thank God, for valet parking in that area), we poured out onto the sidewalk, the baby was unbuckled, unwrapped, rewrapped, re-strapped, covered, shielded, and basically fortified so well that if a meteor hit Brea that instant, everyone else would be sent flying off into the stratosphere, but the baby would be happily cooing away in her Bugaboo.

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca
laissez le bon temps rouler at taps!

Taps is a brewery, so the distinguishing feature from the outside is a series of enormous silver cylinder, presumably brewing or stewing or storing beer, but since I’m not that into that stuff, I have no idea ;) We walked past the outdoor seating, a lone woman taking a smoke break seated at one of the high bar tables. I half-expected to walk into a ginormous Miller brewing plant outfitted with a pub, but Taps actually looks like a restaurant inside. The theme is Southern fishouse, with graffiti scrawled across the tops of walls of fish specials, and Cajun and Creole-style menu items, sort of like a much cleaner, Orange County-ized version of the House of Blues. Because it was the Sunday before Mardi Gras, we had basically walked into an indoor McBourbon Street. I know I heard a live Blues band banging out “Oh, when the Saints…” at least twice while we were there.

We let the four pretty hostessi know we were there. If we weren’t at Taps, I would have guessed they were the updated-for-2006 Robert Palmer girls, in identical tiny black baby t-shirts and hair pulled back in sleek ponytails. Why four? Maybe their t-shirts must have been so tight that it squeezed their intelligence out of their heads, and it requires four of them to equal one brain to do the math to figure out how to seat people.
Is that mean? I couldn’t help it. I just wondered why there were four of them.

The front waiting area is not too large, but is open to all the seating areas. Straight ahead, there’s bar seating, but on this special occasion, all the bar stools had been removed and the semicircular bar-top had been converted into an icy glacier-scape, covered with…Oh. Mah. Gawd. I grabbed my sister’s arm. It was a buffet!!! I didn’t grab my sister’s arm to hold back my utter delight and those are not exclamation points of excitement. I hate buffets. It was an effin’ b-u-f-f-I-would-spell-out-another-four-letter-word-here. Sunday Brunch at Taps is a buffet! The front bar was covered with an astounding array of cold seafoods. And how did I notice this before, right there in the waiting area, a miniature kiddie buffet with corn dogs and French fries. The dining rooms are on either side of the bar, but another entire buffet had been set up overtaking the smaller of the dining rooms, dudes with high hats and neckerchiefs to symbolize their chefosity, standing behind the tables whipping up over-yolked omelettes and doling out desserts.

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - chocolate fondue fountain
willy wonka would be proud

And there I saw it – a monstrosity towering over everything else on that second satellite buffet. I looked over at my Dad. His eyes were lit up like the Tin Man had just walked through an LAX metal detector. Taps isn’t Disneyland. Taps is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with a towering tiered fountain spewing puddles of liquid chocolate goo into some unknown chocolate safety net below, people lined up on either side wielding skewers, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to enrobe their impaled Jet Puffed marshmallows and strawberries. I don’t hate chocolate fountains. “Hate” is such a strong word, no? But I have no fondness for sharing warm chocolate contaminated by hundreds of total strangers and watching its continual regurgitation garner looks of dumbstruck amazement. Dumbstruck amazement. And who’s the princess that just stuck her finger in the chocolate?!?! Dumb. Struck.

The band was set up in the dining room with the buffet as well. We requested to sit on the other side. My sister said it was for the baby, but I am not sure if she was referring to her daughter or to Dad. LOL! We try to make sure that Dad isn’t too close to the desserts otherwise he’ll get too hyper. There was an entire table of tiny desserts of every kind for as long as the eye could see. Or at least, from the stairs to the emergency exit door.

Taps serves only the Champagne and Seafood Brunch buffet on Sundays, so as soon as we settled into what looked like a giant Henry the VIII banquet table smack dab in the middle of the main dining room, we were off to the buffet. I stayed behind to watch the bug in the Bugaboo with my sister. She insisted that I go ahead, but no, really, I’d like to put off touring the buffet for as long as possible.

We looked over Taps’ Cocktails menu, which has a decent list of beers that I don’t care about (sorry, guys), and New Orleans-themed cocktails. A Bellini caught my eye, but when the server mentioned that Mimosas and champagne come with the brunch and are free flowing, well, shoot, honey! Bring me a Mimosa! Light on the orange juice! Oh yeah, and you can bring one for everyone else, too.

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - new orleans inspired cocktails
hurricane, slurricane
taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - gumbo
visual aid for dad’s lesson on gumbo

Everyone came back, and I had to chuckle looking at their plates. If ever you want to learn about a person’s tastes and any weird food quirks they may have, take them to a buffet. What they choose, how they put it on their plate, etc. reveals a lot. My Dad came back with tiny portions of everything in perfect little dollops all over the plate in a colorful patchwork. He was sitting at the head of the table, and I was right next to him. My brother-in-law birthday boy James got mostly seafood , and was paying special attention to his gumbo. Mom had discovered that you can ask the chef at the pasta station to make linguine alla vongole, sans vongole (she loves shellfish). My sister had mostly meats, and her husband, my other brother-in-law, Jimmy (yes, my twin sisters are both married to guys named James/Jimmy, go figger) – well, let’s just say that his plate was the most interesting of all.

Jimmy is a dude. I might have mentioned him before in talking about the Super Bowl, Fantasy leagues, or sports in general. He is a total guy. He plays sports (though I always tease him about baseball not being a real sport). He watches sports. When there are no sports on tv, he watches the History Channel or Animal Planet. When Animal Planet is giving birth to a rhinoceros, he is fascinated. When I looked at his plate, I had to laugh because we paid almost $30 per person for a grand Sunday Champagne and Seafood Buffet and Jimmy had raided…the kid’s buffet. He had a corn dog and French fries! Sure, sure, Jimmy loves corn dogs, and rarely does he comes across the opportunity to eat them, since there aren’t too many Wienerschnitzels where we live. But when he went back for seconds, he came back, grinning from ear to ear, with another corn dog!!! My sister (his wife) and I had to laugh out loud.

Since everyone was back at the table, the baby’s Mom and I headed for the buffet. I was doubtful. I wasn’t sure about this. Taps’ buffet didn’t even have sneeze guards, the very presence of which is what makes me skeptical about buffets in the first place, and the absence, just the same. My sister snatched a plate off the top of the stack, thought twice about it and put it back, and carefully slid one out a few plates further down. She looked back at me with a knowing smile and I think she mouthed to me something about “people” and “touching” and “germs.” Germs? On the top plate? OoooOOooh, that’s right. People might have brushed their grubby, personal germ-infested hands on the plate. Did she forget that we were about to eat from a buffet?!?! We’re about to stroll through a whole parade of bacteria!!

We shuffled along in single file around the curve of the bar, almost all seafood, which I looked at at, but didn’t touch. I just smiled and nodded at the chefs standing behind the bar, so they wouldn’t feel too bad that I was passively rejecting their offerings. Seafood is a gamble for me with all these weird allergies popping up, and seafood from a buffet? Russian roulette.

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - roasted red peppers
what do slippery red peppers say about me?
taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - plate of antipasti
saved from chafing dish hell

Toward the end of the curved bar buffet, it was all antipasti – bread, cheeses, pickled and marinated vegetables. I looked at yet another small satellite buffet set up right across from it that had standard breakfast and brunch items in chafing dishes – eggs, bacon, sausages, French toast – and filled my plated with slippery red peppers, olives, and a whole head of roasted garlic.

We stepped down into the second dining room with the omelette bar. Technically, since the cook is standing there with all the ingredients behind the burner and making omelettes to order, this is probably the most protected from the swarms of cold and flu pneumatically spewing from the general population. However, I have seen too many times an order for “egg whites only” omelettes leaving the cook to deposit the surplus yolks-only into the massive silver vat of eggs, creating an unnaturally high ratio of yolk to white. I love eggs, and the yolk is the tastiest, most vitamin-packed part, but when I’m already in an *ew* mode from being at a buffet, well, unbalanced eggs makes me *ew* too.

taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - clams
linguine alla vongole, sans linguine
taps fishhouse and brewery, brea, ca - lemon custard
mushrooms and…lemon custard?

Some of us went back for a second round, Mom making me go back for another bowl of clams because she was too embarassed to go back for a third time. Dad came back, and sat down. His little plate had marinated mushrooms, a tiny lemon custard, three impaled strawberries dripping with chocolate, and one empty skewer. I looked at my Dad and burst out laughing because he had chocolate all over his face after eating one of the chocolate-covered strawberries on the way. “To hide the evidence from your Mom,” he winked. But I guess he didn’t think that she’d notice an empty skewer on his plate. Or the chocolate on his face. LOL!

As much as I secretly recoiled from the buffet itself, the absence of sneeze guards, the evil sasquatch of a chocolate fountain, brunch was good. Perhaps the Mimosa that had been diluted down to a lightly tinted tangerine by multiple refills of Champagne had numbed my sensisbilties and my sense of taste. Perhaps the monkey’s giggles from the Bugaboo every time I peeked in at her had sent my hormones into gleeful overdrive. Perhaps the gumbo tasted better because Dad had given us yet another lesson from his mental textbook of food history. Gumbo is actually an African word for okra, and American gumbos can’t really be called “gumbo” unless it has okra. Perhaps it’s just that we were celebrating my Dad’s and James’ birthdays, and the only thing that really mattered was that we were all there together. Just like we are every year.

Who knows, we’ll probably go back for Mom’s birthday, too.

Taps Fishhouse and Brewery
101 East Imperial Highway
Brea, CA 92821
714.257.0101

www.tapsbrea.com

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  • Julian Hsu

    Hi Sarah,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple weeks now and I’m hooked! I’m amazed at how you can be both prolific and so very entertaining!

    Looking at that pic of clams, I was thinking, boy my wife would probably love those.. and then it occurred to me: I have no idea what you thought of your meal at Taps. How was it?

  • Cate

    The clams look divine. We’re big on birthdays too. The Husbands all complain that the women drag their birthdays out for weeks on end. Hey, if we can get away with it… Our problem is that the birthdays are all clumped together. SIL in June, me and Mom in July, my son 2 days later in August, 2 in September and then my lonely sister a-l-l the way in February. I promised her the next baby wouldn’t be in summer, but it’s not looking good. ;)

  • Joy

    Oooooo, I love birthdays! In my house (me and my honey) we usually get two, maybe three birthdays each. On the actual date-o’-birth, the rule is “you get everything you want.” Within reason, but we’re talking MY reason, so… Then there’s the romantic dinner out to a fancy new restaurant with my honey, which may be on a different day, all things considered.

    Then there’s The Party, or Birthday Observed, on the closest Saturday. I try to explain to everyone that for my birthday, giving this party IS a gift to myself, but they don’t get it. I gloriously, wastefully spend an entire week planning and executing the most ridiculously complex meal, preferably with many small dishes, one of those things where you have a game plan of “Day 1, make A, B, C; Day 2, make D, E…” I have a blast! Well, right up to the serious stress point where I almost explode because nothing’s working on time, but that passes and then we all have delicious fun. My guests might have more of a blast if I cooked dishes I knew, but part of the point is to experiment, so, who knows what will happen? Nobody! >hehehehe< Sheesh, now you’ve got my mind on it and I’m bummed that we don’t have another birthday for months… BTW, *love* the blog.

  • sarah

    julian: thanks for reading! the clams were good, according to my mom,and i trust her ( i didn’t try them, because i seafood makes me shiver right now ), and to be quite honest, for a buffet, the food at Taps wasn’t that bad. :)

    cate: the next baby?!?!? do you have something to tell us?!?! :)

    joy: i am right there with you on the birthday thing! and i LOVE cooking for my friends on my birthday. honestly, it’s the best birthday present they could give me – just coming over to my house, spending time with me, and giving me a chance to cook – which i find hard to do these days as part of a regular life, you know?

  • Anonymous

    Does you dad really call himself the Captain? That is too funny!

  • sarah

    LOL! yes, and sometimes, he calls himself a five star general and refers to the family as “the troops.”

    my dad is so rad.

  • MEalCentric

    As much as you hate buffets, I luv em. Actually, I’ve been meaning to go to Taps for some time now. Well, maybe more for the mimosas but for the buffet too. But its good to hear that despite your bias against buffets, this one was still okay in your taste.

  • sarah

    really, mealcentric? see, my sisters and mom LOVE buffets too, and i find it so strange because though they are not picky eaters, i would say that in general, they have very refined taste, i.e. fine wines, fine cheeses, fine everything. and yet they get all atwitter over buffets. LOL!

    i think it mught be the cheap korean in them. ;)

  • hermz

    Your bacteriophobia amuses me… me, of all people. :) Incidentally, my last ever food poisoning lecture is Mon. June 5th.

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  • Anonymous

    Nice location and good meals for reasonable prices. Our group from Steven Sears attorney and mike Sears EA Irvine took ten special clients for an evening of fun. Only 15 minutes from our Irvine Professional Law Building.

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