Back in 2011 my then fiancée and I were living in an apartment in Ballston, a neighborhood of Arlington, VA. We could walk to everything, and I had the unfortunate choice between a 20 minute bus ride or a 5 minute drive to work. In trying to convince her to move to a place where we could, you know, afford more than a closet when we decided to buy a home coinciding with the wedding, we had to negotiate a few things. She cared about “walkability,” Metro, and other European eccentricities, to which the only part I shared was the desire to be stumbling distance from at least one decent sports bar or pub. After a long search, I found a neighborhood tucked back just outside of Falls Church, the “little city” right next to Arlington which met all of her qualifications. Suffice to say the spot was so nice two of my friends bought houses there, too (including Ben).
If wondering why you should care about this prologue, it’s because those early days in Falls Church drastically shaped my growing love for beer. In my first post I talked about how I discovered Port City and the delicious Optimal Wit at the first BBQ we hosted in that new house. Coincidentally, that very beer was from the very first mixed six pack I picked up from the little beer & wine shop that just so happened to be walking distance from the house. That was in July, but the first memory we created in Falls Church is also beer related, and it happened that June, two nights before we settled on the new house.
In scouting Falls Church I’d noted all the restaurants, bars, antique shops, farmers market, concert hall, burger joints, etc. One of the newer complexes that had gone up in Falls Church included a wide storefront for Mad Fox Brewing Company. I knew next to nothing about it except that it looked new and had outdoor seating, so in order to calm our nerves before closing (and the wedding, which was 10 days away!) we took a seat outside. Not really knowing squat about beer yet except that I preferred Hoegaarden, Yuengling, and Coors Light in emergency circumstances, I took a recommendation and a pizza while the wife threw back a vodka-cranberry and salad.
Let’s just say that we liked it, and went back to Mad Fox. A lot. This being 2011, they’d been open for just under a year, but that was when they exploded and started notching awards from “Best of…” commendations to two 2011 GABF medals, including a Gold for that very beer which had been recommended to me, the Kellerbier Kölsch. First for me and later for Ben, Mad Fox became the one place which we ensured that anyone visiting from out of town had to experience, and it remains a go-to for some of my work/friend circles even after we’ve moved on to a new neighborhood. Having done everything from happy hours to group celebrations to festivals to date nights and even a fantasy football draft, I decided that Mad Fox needed a review worthy of all the people it’s impacted. Going back to when I first started writing for VBR I began collecting notes, photos, and musings from others for this feature-length piece. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed, ahem, “researching” all that Mad Fox has to offer.
Mad Fox Brewing Company, Falls Church, VA
The first thing you notice about Mad Fox is how large it is. With a full dining space for the restaurant and two separate bar areas (dubbed “The Pub” and “The Saloon” for reservation purposes), it’s practically as large as three restaurants strung together. The two bar areas seem as if they lack seats, but that appears to be on purpose as with all the events, happy hours, and the like, it’s a much better mingling space than if they’d crammed some extra low-slung tables.
The reason becomes clear as you spot some of the production space sitting right out among the tables. You’re meant to notice the emphasis on beer as well as all the patrons strung out around the cavernous floor poaching their next tasting glass from their racks. The chalkboards helpfully denote the cask availabilities if you’re into that, and the menus thankfully have well-written descriptions of the brewmeister’s interpretation of the varied styles. And almost as if meant for an art gallery, nearly every single beer is absolutely gorgeous to behold.
If not as knowledgeable as a brewer might be, the servers have all clearly tried the beers and can offer well-formed opinions in addition to info to help you decide from the menu. That menu changes basically every time I’ve been there (and honestly, has changed once just during the few days I spent putting this piece together), and they’ve happily posted a sampling of the 169 and counting brews that Brewmeister Bill Madden and staff have concocted over the last almost 4.5 years. Having only had 21 or so of those, guess I have a bit of catching up to do, hmm?
If I find one negative about the layout itself, it’s that it can be pretty loud in “The Pub” section, and queries to the staff about sitting over in the group seating section (“The Saloon”) can be confusing at times. That’s largely nitpicking, though, as happy hour at any half-decent restaurant in NOVA is an exercise in throwing elbows. 7.5 out of 10.
Apart from a few regulars such as the two versions of the Kölsch, Defender APA, and Broad Street IPA, Mad Fox is like a box of chocolates…eh, save it. The menu ranges from those staples to seasonals, collaborations, cask conditioned, and small batch beers like the ridiculously well-timed Snowquester last year. I’ve already covered The Maneuver, an American IPA, in another review, so here I’ll focus on some of their classics.
Kellerbier Kölsch – We’ll start deservedly with the beer which first caught my attention. I’d never had a Kölsch before, but one of my favorite things to do when I started drinking “real” beer during 4th year was to pretend that anything German was superior. I mean, Deutschland über alles, ja? Until this point, though, my experience had somehow missed out on this variety amidst all the Weizens, Bocks, Pilsners, Lagers, and so on. Over the past few years the quality of each batch I’ve tried has varied, from the amount of yeast in suspension to the crispness of the hops and carbonation. I prefer the higher yeast versions, but this beer is just so consistently good that it stands alone among other Kellerbiers. This is also Mad Fox’s superlative version of the traditional German brews, with the Dunkelweizen running a close second. 8.5 out of 10.
Wee Heavy – Throughout the barren nights of yore, whilst drunken scots did toss and snore, their children did wonder at the idiotic bevy, ‘ere the forgotten clink of the glasses of wee heavy. This isn’t an ode to the last of the barman poets but rather of the sodden gloriousness of this 8.6% Strong Scotch Ale. My reaction to this beer caused most of the rest of the table to order it as well. Believe me, they do you a service by relegating this to a snifter. The body was fairly smooth while any sweet notes were carried in the finish. I’m a toffee fanatic, but although Mad Fox claims that as a flavor I’d stick with a somewhat nuttier description that’s not as sweet – perhaps hazelnut. 8.6 out of 10.
Orange Whip IPA – Among my other early snobbish habits was to avoid any beer which had even the barest mention of fruit. You can blame Beerfest and the summary Shewolf references, but honestly I even thought it blasphemous to attach a citrus wedge to a pint glass or poke a slice of lime down a cerveza. Ben eventually won me over to trying this one, and I’m glad he did. The elements here trend more creamy thanks to a healthy addition of malts, and you can see that effect on the deep copper color beyond the piney essence of most IPAs (picture courtesy Untappd; I have somehow failed to check this in since I started working on this piece). What you won’t notice is the absurd 75 IBUs that the Orange Whip packs, as those citrus and caramel notes in the body balance out the dry hopped additions. Of all their beers, I take this one for granted as it almost always appears on the tasting menu…except when I want it, of course. That could just be me saying it should be a permanent addition to the menu. 8.7 out of 10.
Gridlock India Pale Lager – A collaboration with DuClaw Brewing up in Maryland, what struck me about the Gridlock is that while the hop profile sits quite forward, there’s a substantial amount of sweetness which borders on fruity; rather than be overpowering, this secondary profile provides a good amount of balance to the hops. As far as the lager portion goes, what really sticks out is the carbonation and acidity as another mellowing agent. At 5% ABV this is closer to a lager than an IPA, but taste wise you’ll notice that it improves after a few sips – meaning get a pint, not a taster. 7.5 out of 10.
Ambassador IPA – An experimental beer, this was a Session IPA that debuted in the summer of 2013. One of the few beers that saw some tap time at other DC-area establishments, I saw this as more of an APA in the best possible way. If you found it at either Smoke & Barrel or Meridian Pint, consider yourself among the fortunate ones. I was one of only 36 to ever check this in on Untappd, so there! 8.0 out of 10.
Other Notables – Two Hemispheres Wet-Hopped IPA (limited run), Lindy’s Weiss Hefeweizen, Brian’s Last Stand Dunkelweizen (limited run), Hitzig Frau Oktoberfest
If you want burger reviews, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want burgers in general, Mad Fox is also the wrong place to go. Since this menu has changed so much – but also since we’re talking about a pub for which happy hour is a major draw – I’ll offer some highlights from the appetizer/tasting menu as well as some general notes on the main courses. One thing to consider, however, is that I don’t do dessert because beer is simply better.
Bitterballen – First off, what the heck are Bitterballen? Well, it’s apparently a Dutch dish of curried ground lamb, rolled into a ball then deep fried. I’ll give you a moment to digest that, because we’re going to spend some time here. This is simply an amazing idea, and when I lived in Germany for several years I never heard of anything like this. Whether the Germans were simply obsessed with fried meat cutlets such as Schnitzel or they were too proud to acknowledge any genius from their neighbors to the Northwest, this is probably the best export out of the Netherlands. Granted, lamb isn’t typically associated with the orthodox recipes, but I applaud Mad Fox for thinking outside the box here. I’d love to know how they marinated the ground lamb as it absolutely soaks up every last bit of the curry. Oh, and there’s some sort of veggie mix blended in there as well, but my love was stolen at “lamb + curry.” The Dutch tradition was to accompany Bitterballen with mustard, and Mad Fox has chosen to include a traditional spicy ground mustard as well as a creamy curry mustard. As much as the German in me continues to scream Nein!! I find myself partial to the curried variety. What breaks my heart into a million little pieces is that as of December, Mad Fox replaced Bitterballen on the menu with a few more trendy items. A long while back the kitchen sampled their new Pork Belly Bites, but while those may end up being a decent replacement I’m using my tiny little soapbox here to hang a forever-sign. So in my best Mel Gibson/William Wallace drawn-and-quartered impression: BITTER-BALL-ENNNNNNNNN!!!!! 10 out of 10.
Fried Pickles – What, a gastropub can’t go full Southern on you? Plenty of Northern Virginians like to pretend that we’re not in the South, but having been born and raised in the 757 when it used to be the 804, I have a few arguments for you: bourbon, sandals, undershirts, muddy creeks, marshes, and bourbon a second time. The portion which Mad Fox bestows upon you is so generous as to be gluttonous, complete with a spicy ranch which should be spirited away for the main course. The loose breading can be a pain in the arse, but when you eat these frickles the proper way (that is, by the handful), the bits which decouple themselves are almost as good as finding a quarter in a jar of pennies. 7.5 out of 10.
Wings – My favorite bar food, and my quintessential point of judgment across all such purveyors. That’s my gastropub way of saying, “if your wings stink, you ain’t got squat to brag about.” Their exact lineup of flavors has changed over time (a trendy honey sriracha has been replaced by Asian), but if I go this direction I opt for the BeerBQ with the spicy ranch once again. Typically I take my flavors spicy with a hint of sweetness, however this is more of a 2/3 sweet 1/3 tangy blend. Of course, my “tangy” was down right “horrifying” to my 9 month old… What I do like about these wings is that even if the sauces feel more hip than flavorful, they are always perfectly cooked with just a hint of bark on the skin while the meat is tender. I want to like these more than I do, so if I’m allowed to offer suggestions, I will say that I’m increasingly siding with grilled wings. They’re a total pain to cook, but man do they hold flavor… 6.0 out of 10.
Burgers/Sandwiches – The smallest part of the menu, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find something. My original beau was the Cuban, which is my sandwich version of wings – I’ve sampled a Cubano at Mad Fox, Red Apron, 21st Amendment, The Beer Joint, and a host of other such “elevated” watering holes. Since that was an early casualty during their first year, this portion of the menu has trended towards a few kinds of burgers (beef, white meat, veggie), grilled chicken, and something absurdly American. When I’ve gone this direction more recently, it was because the Mad Fox Burger was featuring bacon jam…however, with the most recent menu update, the new Burger 4.0 is something fairly insane I feel compelled to try which includes three kinds of meat and raclette cheese (if you don’t know what it is, you can’t afford it). This may be the weakest part of the menu, as it could desperately use a build-your-own burger or more than a token selection of other sandwiches. 5.5 out of 10.
A separate note on the fries. They’re awesome. Crisp, meaty, well-seasoned. The ketchup is handmade as well. 10 out of 10.
Pizzas – The heart and soul of the menu, and it’s not even close. It’s hard for me to make a single recommendation as I’ve gone through multiple near-polyamorous relationships with some of these concoctions. The easiest one to start with is the Garlic Pig, which attaches bacon and pepperoni as the latter half of the moniker. Or there’s The Mob, which in a snarky turn loses the garlic in favor of a few Italian friends in some salami and spiced sausage in addition to the bacon and pepperoni. What you notice is that most of these pizzas are simply mountains of cheese. The sauce is more of a vessel for the toppings which range from tomato to olive oil to truffle oil (mac & cheese pizza? what?!?!) all the way to a sriracha garlic purée. Let’s talk about this last one a bit. Recently Mad Fox added something called the Mad Brewer to their pizza lineup. As Def Leppard once crooned, love bites. In the Mad Brewer’s case, it latches on with serrated fangs and doesn’t let go until some time the next morning. But oh, my, is the punishment ever worth it. That purée is topped with pork belly, jalapeños, and red chili flakes for an absolutely unholy concoction of righteous Hellfire. If you can stand the heat, you’ll never expect less from a pizza again. 8.8 out of 10.
Main Courses/Entrées – It’s hard to keep a full head of steam for a monstrous portion, but thankfully Mad Fox is well aware that you likely haven’t gotten this far without an empty stomach. I’ve been all over the place here as Mad Fox tries to vary this portion of the menu almost monthly it seems. From the meat loaf to the Southern fried chicken, drunken pork chop to drunken ribeye, the meat is almost always excellent. My main gripe is on the side dishes, as while items such as succotash, bacon fat-sautéed green beans, and cheesy grits can all be great, at times there’s a lack of cohesion which is jarring. As a result I typically leave one side almost untouched. If I’m recommending only one entrée, head for the Drunken Pork Chop and never look back. Mad Fox figured out how to incorporate two different beers into that dish, so you can pair it with almost anything on the menu as a result; the brined pork itself is exceptional. 6.5 out of 10.
Brunch – My modus operandi in the rare occasion that I get to the bastard stepchild of “breakfast” and “hangover” is eggs benedict. Mad Fox’s is fairly solid, as are their home fries, so on the few occasions I’ve deviated it’s been for a special such as the Truffled Mac & Cheese Pizza, Braised Pork Belly, or the Fried Chicken and Waffles. Those were all delicious, but I don’t feel as much of a connection to the beer at 11am on a Sunday, you know? 8.0 out of 10.
Goodness gracious, is it hard to miss when Mad Fox takes over their plaza. Having attended their Spring Bock, DC Beer Week, Oktoberfest, and Cask Ale festivals, I was only half-surprised to see upcoming Barleywine, NYE, Valentine’s Day, Grab-the-Glass/Steal-the-Stein nights, and other one-offs. I’ve covered a lot of these in greater detail, but my point here is to relate once again that it’s hard to classify Mad Fox as only a restaurant, gastropub, or brewery as there’s a lot of thought, planning, and logistics that go into some of these ideas. 9.0 out of 10.
Back when Hamilton first started this site, my immediate reaction on seeing a “Watering Hole” section was, “oooh, Mad Fox!” Indeed, the Spring Bock festival was among my first features, and it feels that every few weeks I’m back there snapping photos and jotting down notes. It’s hard to perfectly capture Mad Fox because its menus, events, and people are so fleeting, but that’s the best part of going back there every so often: it feels familiar yet retains that “new car smell.” That’s how I’ve coped with the loss of some of the menu items as some of the replacements are simply refining the many elements they’ve experimented in over the last 4+ years. My immediate reaction to Mad Fox on any given day can be almost bipolar in nature, but the sum of all its parts since we discovered it that June evening is that you can always find one thing you like be it the drinks (including the wine and mead…yes, mead), apps, food, or simply the ambiance
If you do trek down to Falls Church, make Mad Fox your first stop. Odds are you won’t be disappointed, but better odds are you’ll end up bragging about the experience in one way or the other.
9.2 out of 10