In January, when the rest of the city was sporting orange in preparation for the big game against the Colts, I was counting down to another, far less publicized event: the opening of the Chowder Room, a casual seafood restaurant on a busy stretch of South Broadway. If you’ve lived back east — where chowdah is king and your stance on whether tomatoes belong in it marks you as “one of us” or “one of them” — you’ll understand my excitement. Back there, the chowdah fight is like Colorado’s rivalry over green chile, only more intense. After all, that battle isn’t just about soup, or even bragging rights over whether the best chowder is made in New York or Boston. It’s about the curse of the Bambino, which is at the heart of every regional spat.
But that’s another story. This story is about chowder, and the quaint restaurant that now specializes in it here in Denver.
As someone who called New York City home for years and who married a card-carrying chowdah head, I see the merits of both varieties. New England clam chowder is rich and creamy, just what I want after a windswept walk on the beach, with crumbly potatoes, salty pork and plenty of sweet clams — typically quahogs, the big daddies prized for this purpose. Manhattan is lighter, with acidity from those controversial tomatoes and more seafoody resonance because the clam broth isn’t mellowed with cream. I couldn’t wait to try bowls of both.
As soon as I could, I ducked behind the blue fence and into the Chowder Room, in the process leaving behind not just the noisy street, but our landlocked state. Booths were painted a stormy gray, edged with multi-colored boards that dazzled the eye like beach glass.
Lighthouses and boat models were propped about, and mismatched frames showcasing everything from seahorses to sailing knots formed a tight collage on the walls. My husband, who grew up eating at real chowder houses, where the atmosphere didn’t matter in the slightest, found the room as over-the-top as the line on the door trumpeting “It’s like kissing the sea on the lips!” I found both the decor and the tagline cheerily kitschy, a reminder of where I’ve lived and vacations I’ve taken. And then I got down to business, scanning the menu and plotting my strategy — maybe Manhattan as the appetizer, New England as my entree.
But chef-owner Matthew Stein — who grew up in New York and spent more than two decades with King’s Seafood Company, which operates eighteen restaurants in the West (none of them in the Denver area) — must’ve had guests like me in mind when he designed the menu. In addition to offering several kinds of chowder by the cup, bowl and bread bowl, he serves them as a flight, so equal-opportunity chowder lovers and other curious types don’t have to order soup for two courses. I skimmed the chowder section to check my options. Then I slowed down and read it again. There was the New England. There was the chowder of the day, which happened to be a Rhode Island clear. There was even a vegan/gluten-free option with tofu and green curry. But the Manhattan was nowhere to be found; it had been usurped by something called “spicy red seafood.” Stein later told me that the Manhattan is on the chowder-of-the-day rotation and shows up every few weeks, but — unfortunately for me — never on my visits.
Disappointed that a place named for chowder didn’t regularly offer one of its archetypes, I ordered the sampler anyway — and what came out in those four-ounce cups was also disappointing. The New England was lusciously thickened, with the texture of hearty soup, not gravy, but it could have been cream-of-anything soup, so little did it taste of the sea. There was no sherry, and in the whole cup, I found only two wisps of clams — canned, in case you’re wondering. The spicy red had more clam flavor and was indeed red and spicy. But what accounted for the “seafood” in its name, I couldn’t guess: My spoon didn’t net any sea creature other than a few more canned clams. I’d never had Rhode Island clear before, but if the server hadn’t told me it had seafood in it, I never would have guessed: The soup could’ve passed for chicken-and-potato.
Sadly, the disappointments didn’t end there. Yellowfin tuna in the Hawaiian poke appetizer was cut into good-sized chunks and generously dusted with spicy Japanese togarashi, but the avocado chopped along with it could have used another week to ripen. Coleslaw, one of six à la carte sides, tasted like it had left the kitchen before it got even a whiff of citrus, despite being listed as “lemony.” Green-curry-coconut chowder, which can’t be ordered as part of the sampler, seemed like it had been made by a prep cook who had better things to do and places to go, since it was studded with clunky hunks of eggplant, cauliflower and tofu the size of building blocks. And the shortcake special could’ve used a lighter hand with the dough; the biscuit was tough and the dish short on strawberries.
A crab cake came out like a gummy disc, the breadcrumbs on top and bottom cooked to a nice golden, but pale and soggy on the sides; inside was stringy claw meat, lots of bready, eggy binder, and no sweetness. When I asked Stein about the crab cake, he stressed that it was made in the Pacific Northwest style. “The Maryland crab cake is always going to be lump meat and barely bound,” he said. “This is a cake with more stuffing, and it’s $6.75, not $26.75.”
And therein lies the key to understanding the Chowder Room. The restaurant — a family operation, with Stein’s wife, Carrie, as general manager and son Zane as a server/bartender — isn’t trying to compete with any sophisticated seafood temples, with their sparkling raw bars, elegant plating and high prices. Rather, it’s a place where saltwater taffy arrives along with the check, tucked inside an Old Bay can. “This is a humble neighborhood, and we want to serve the neighborhood,” explained Stein. “We’re trying to find a product that our guests are really happy about the value of, and that’s not always the absolute most expensive thing.”
Perhaps that’s why the Chowder Room feels more like a lunch spot than a dinner one, with a single, all-day menu heavy on items you might pair with a cup of chowder. That means a burger and several sandwiches, including a very good fried cod with tartar sauce kicked up with housemade pickles and chopped lemon, and an equally strong pan-fried chicken with whole-grain aioli. One night our server, a Colorado native, went so far as to call the bird his favorite dish in the place. There are tried-and-true salads, too, such as the Caesar and a mixed green with blue cheese, egg and pecans, as well as dishes like fried calamari and three kinds of shrimp — deep-fried, coconut and barbecue — in three- to eleven-piece portions. I tried the coconut shrimp, which was addictively crisp but so light on coconut it might as well have been plain fried shrimp.
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This lineup is bolstered by entree specials along the lines of the fine Alaskan halibut amandine I ordered one night, nutty from brown butter and sliced almonds. Broiled petite sea scallops, reminiscent of escargots in their bath of white wine and garlic butter, are about the closest thing to a hot entree on the regular menu. But the night a friend ordered them — choosing the six- over the eight-ounce option — he ate half the dish and declared it so rich, he wished he could’ve had an even smaller size.
Despite its casual nature, the Chowder Room isn’t exactly a deal. Eastern oysters are listed at $3.50 apiece. That halibut, served by itself on a white plate, ran in the mid-twenties; for a side of rice to soak up the brown butter, we had to pay extra. And neither the fish nor the chicken sandwich came with fries, much less a bag of chips. At least we didn’t have to pay extra for oyster crackers.
It’s a good thing we live in a chile, not a chowder, town. Denver diners’ opinions over what we want in chowder — indeed, in seafood restaurants — aren’t set in stone. “There’s a lot to figure out,” says Stein. “I think we’re going to be learning what guests want us to be.” And if the Broncos’ bitter January loss to the Colts showed us anything, it’s that Denverites are a patient, forgiving bunch, always willing to try again.
560 South Broadway
Select menu items at Chowder Room:
Hawaiian poke $8.50
Chowder sampler $8.50
Chicken sandwich $8.95
Cod sandwich $9.95
Crab cakes $6.75/pc.
scallops $14.50/6 oz.
Halibut special $25
Chowder Room is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at chowderroom.com.