Carlos Russo created AquaBrew, San Marcos’ new downtown craft brewery and gastropub, to raise the city’s hospitality barre and create a “holistic,” communal dining experience that would stimulate all the senses – not just taste but sight and sound.
He wasn’t thinking small. The 14,000-square foot space will have a capacity for 700 guests when the rooftop garden and biergarten are completed this fall. The pub opened this spring.
Little matter that the friendly Russo had never operated – or even worked in – a restaurant before.
A native of Venezuela, he came to the U.S. as a teenager with his family and majored in chemical engineering at Tufts University. Russo and his wife, Michelle Russo, moved to San Marcos in 2001, partly to be near family.
Michelle’s father, Dick Burdick, owns Dick’s Classic Car Garage and Thermon Manufacturing Company, which is headquartered in San Marcos. Carlos and Michelle now have a 13-year old son, Sebastian, and a 12-year old daughter, Isabella. And Carlos’ parents aren’t too far – they live in Houston. So they’re pretty embedded in the community.
But in a previous career as an IT consultant, Russo entertained clients at the best restaurants in foodie cities across America. “I really missed that,” he said. “From 2000 to 2010 there wasn’t much happening in San Marcos.”
He hired two industry veterans – executive chef Chandler Melia and brew master Brian Bush – to oversee AquaBrew’s food and drink.
Melia, a Culinary Institute of America alum with a decade of private country club experience, created the casual but artisanal menu that inventively blends Asian, Italian, Mexican and American flavors to appeal equally to carnivorous, vegetarian and gluten-free diners.
The dozen or so pub snacks range from the outrageous (Bacon Jam Fries or Green Chili Beer Fondue) to the adventurous (Sticky Edamame or Crispy Tuna) to the classic (Gulf Oysters or Eggplant Ravioli). Virtuous eaters have plenty of salads to choose from. And for the ravenous, the plates include an AB Burger with a side of parmesan garlic fries; Spicy Grilled Thai Chicken with a green curry, veggies and rice; IPA Braised Beef Shoulder and a Prime Strip Steak.
Fittingly, Chef Melia incorporates brewed ingredients wherever appropriate. He’s also got a taste for pretzel bread.
Bush cranked up AquaBrew’s 15-barrel brewery on July 4. The first releases should be ready by early August. Depending on the type of brew, the process can take anywhere from a few days to 80 days. Ales are the fastest to make, Russo said.
There’s no limit to the styles AquaBrew can offer — Kölsch, Vienna Lager, Smash, Porter, Saison, Session. Bush keeps his big fridge stocked with fresh hops from suppliers in the Midwest and Germany, so he’s got plenty of inspiration.
“It’s his recipes, his design, his mind,” Russo said. “He has more than 20 years’ experience, at all scales of beer-making – from Anheuser Busch to microbreweries.” The drink menu also offers 14 dozen wines by the glass, five nice bottles, and non-alcoholic drinks.
Customers new to the gastropub experience needn’t be intimidated: Russo’s staff can help with beer pairings.
“A general philosophy is that you pair sweet with bitter,” he said.
He suggests, for example: With AquaBrew’s Brown Sugar Grilled Salmon, try Sierra Nevada’s sour Otra Vez, “or any IPA” to cut the sweetness of the seafood’s glaze. With a snack like Buffalo Deviled Eggs, which have a spicy finish, sip an Austin Eastcider or the Black Lab Porter from San Marcos’ Middleton Brewing.
Beyond the food, drink and expert service, Russo also envisions AquaBrew as a community catalyst for performing and visual arts. He’s hanging works from San Marcos’ Dahlia Woods Gallery on the walls, giving local musicians a spotlight with his live music schedule, and planning other events that showcase local artists.
“We believe in the power of community,” he said. “It’s reflected in the design, down to the communal seating. You might sit down with a stranger and walk out with a friend.”