If Troy Guard’s combination of Pop Rocks and yellowtail sashimi at TAG hinted that he was a magician, his treatment of TAG|Raw Bar just down Larimer Street confirmed it. One day the subterranean space was TAG|Raw Bar, and then, before we could blink, he’d waved his wand and turned it into bubu, a health-oriented fast-casual spot that operates like a hybrid of Chipotle and Tokyo Bowl. But it’s going to take more than an “abracadabra” to make magic happen at bubu Lowry, which opened this past winter in the Hangar 2 development.
If the trick worked in Larimer Square, why doesn’t it work in Lowry? The snag isn’t what food snobs might suppose: Guard didn’t dumb down the concept to fit the ’burbs (not that Lowry is technically a ’burb, but try telling that to denizens of LoDo or RiNo or Highland). If anything, he upped the complexity, transforming bubu into a sit-down restaurant and adding a full dinner menu to complement the lunchtime bowls. And therein lies the problem. In magic, as in standup comedy, timing is everything. An act that was designed to last two minutes can’t sustain itself for twenty — and at heart, bubu Lowry remains a two-minute act.
The setting is promising. Elements that in the original seemed like an attempt to make us forget we were underground are played up here, coming together with the serenity of a spa. The palette is clean, a harmonious mix of greens, grays and white. Live plants brighten tables. Glass garage doors open to a patio, but even in the coldest weather, the outdoors comes in via a wall-sized photo of crops in a field. Cucumber water is complimentary, and there’s even a sign over a yellow basket designating it as a place to park yoga mats. If the loud reggae had been replaced by sounds of gently crashing waves, I would have been ready for hot stones and a warm towel wrapped around my face.
Instead, relaxation came in the form of stiff cocktails, consumed with a friend during happy hour, when breezes kept blowing in through the open doors. If there was an aha! moment during any of my bubu visits, it was that afternoon, when prices were low enough to also lower expectations for the nibbles we paired with our drinks.
The dinner menu has a more pronounced Asian-fusion slant than the lunch menu, which features customizable and preset bowls with names like Thai, Paleo and Mexican. Still, both rosters reflect Guard’s upbringing in Hawaii as well as time spent in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. But Guard isn’t doing the cooking here; he’s got other projects to attend to, including not just existing restaurants such as TAG and Guard and Grace, but also upcoming ventures in Stapleton and RiNo. Still, the master magician has been keeping an eye on this location and has already changed his assistant: Brent Calley, previously of La Sandia Park Meadows, came on board as chef last month.
If dishes had come out tasting as good as they sounded on paper, that happy hour — and all the meals that followed — would’ve been one helluva show. But the potstickers were thin and crisp as crackers, and so short on shrimp they offered no hint of the crustacean. Roasted carrots were splayed over a yellow curry that was bland, not bright. Charred tuna fanned in slices over turmeric oil tasted mostly like oil. Two buns, one stuffed with corned beef and another with duck confit, tasted like just that: corned beef and confit. Not bad, but not as intriguing as they should’ve been, given the promise of pickled shallots, cabbage, hoisin and Chinese vinegar slaw; the fact that the buns were dry didn’t help matters. Even crispy rice, a tribute to Nobu’s famous dish, was underwhelming, with very little tuna atop the pats of flash-fried rice, and a disappointingly cloying profile.
Crispy rice wasn’t the only dish marred by skimpy protein. A sirloin bowl had enough steak for an appetizer, not an $18 entree. What was there was tender, a reflection of the meat’s sous-vide cooking process, with a satisfying sear from its finish on the flat-top. But the steak was chopped in niblets hardly larger than bacon bits, and they promptly got lost in the bowl’s expanse of brown rice. Lunchtime bowls also lacked enough ingredients to balance out the base (your choice of brown or white rice, rice noodles or mixed greens). An OG Colorado offered larger pieces of steak than the dinner bowl, but still not enough to outlast the rice. Chicken thighs in a Thai bowl gave out long before the mound of rice noodles, and the cubes of fried tofu we’d paired with a Paleo bowl were snapped up in a few bites. There was more pork in a bowl of ramen, but the meat was so fatty, we were left with little we wanted to eat. Such meager portions might be expected at a chain, where portions are carefully monitored to maximize profits, but not here.
Other flaws that might be overlooked in a fast-casual format aren’t so easy to ignore when the food is being finished to order and delivered to your table. While rice noodles were apparently supposed to be cold, it would have been nice for our server to warn us. Roasted carrots in the OG Colorado bowl were also cold, and uncomfortably raw. Dressings were in short supply, except in the case of one overly generous carrot-mustard sauce that had so little flavor, I had to check the menu to see what I was eating. Vegetables and other toppings — not just proteins, but bok choy, pumpkin seeds, papaya slaw, etc. — were also unbalanced in relation to the rice that filled the bowls like, well, filler (and unseasoned filler, to boot). Nearly every dish I ate would have benefited from more acid, fresh herbs and salt.
Bubu does have a few tricks up its sleeves. The happy-hour cocktails, for starters. The veggie ramen was loaded with as many vegetables as noodles — carrots, beets, soybeans, bok choy, shiitakes, fennel and chard, some wok-charred to deepen the flavors in the umami-heavy mushroom-based broth. Pork ramen, though not a milky tonkotsu, made for an acceptable bowl if you didn’t want to trek to a more authentic spot, with long-simmered bones from pig’s necks and feet. (In traditional tonkotsu, they’d be boiled, resulting in that emulsified, fatty cloudiness.) And a chocolate-chip cookie from sister restaurant Sugarmill ended one meal on a sweet note, even though the cookie was gluten-free and loaded with chia seeds that the server hadn’t told us about.
Who knows? Guard is a veteran performer, adept in everything from fine dining to tacos, so he may be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat here, too.
7559 East Academy Boulevard
Shrimp potstickers $7
Roasted carrots $6
Corned-beef bun $8
Duck confit bun $8
Crispy rice $14
Charred-tuna sashimi $14
Sirloin steak bowl $18
Preset lunch bowls $8-14
Veggie ramen $12
Pork ramen $13
Bubu is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at bubu-denver.com.