If you’re from the South, you’re probably on good terms with grits. If not, you might be slow to warm up to them, especially if you try the instant, watery kind. But made right, grits can be your friend. And if you’re lucky enough to be fork-first with the ultra-creamy ones at Low Country Kitchen, you may find that grits aren’t just your new best friend, but a best friend with benefits.
Low Country Kitchen’s coarse, antebellum grits are terrific, creamy as pudding, speckled with fatter-than-normal flecks of corn, and lavished with that holy trinity of Southern cooking: butter, cream and cheese — in this case, aged white Cheddar. They’re the real reason to try the shrimp and grits, especially when you swirl them with gravy whispering of shrimp stock and smoked bacon. They’re also the absolute-must-order item on a list of sides that make grown men weep.
At this point, the benefits kick in. Grits at Low Country Kitchen aren’t just dinner; they’re dinner-as-vacation, each bite transporting you to a place where breezes blow in through moss-hung live oaks and afternoons are spent on covered porches with friends. Who cares if this place is real or imagined, the stuff of your childhood or just books that you’ve read? Grits are a ticket to another lifestyle, and it’s this slow, genteel way of life that’s really what’s on the menu at Low Country Kitchen.
Touches large and small enhance the feeling of being far, far away. One wall in the atmospheric (read: dimly lit) upper dining room is lined with faux plantation-style shutters. A pitcher of sweet tea sits on the bar. Water is poured into Mason jars. Appetizers arrive on blue floral plates that your great-grandmother might have owned. Whiskey bottles abound, and Creedence Clearwater Revival plays softly in the background. Whether you’re at a table inside, on a sofa on the rooftop deck or under a patio umbrella sipping a mint julep, you’ll find that time really slows down. Even if servers who walk away while you’re talking with them don’t exactly represent Southern hospitality at its best, even on nights when a sluggish kitchen draws out a meal, you’re more likely to settle in than feel stressed.
Launched in LoHi this winter, Low Country Kitchen owes its Southern soul to owners Brian and Katy Vaughn, who collectively spent a good chunk of their lives in New Orleans, Louisville, Charleston and along the Carolina-Georgia coast. To them, the restaurant represents a bit of nostalgia. To others, it can seem misplaced. “People come and say it’s funny we’re serving American Southern food in the Rocky Mountains,” says Brian, who spent time in high-end kitchens in Chicago and Florida, including Norman’s, but was ultimately drawn back to casual Southern cuisine. “I look at it as no stranger than serving Thai or Japanese or sushi.” This is the Vaughns’ fourth restaurant, and the second location of Low Country Kitchen; the first opened in 2014 in Steamboat Springs, where they met.
Their menu reads like a love letter to the South, and the most satisfying way to approach a meal here is to stick with traditional Southern entrees, then supplement as necessary with starters and small plates. You can skip the barbecue lamb shoulder — it sounds like a classic but could’ve passed for braised lamb in bland tomato sauce — and go straight to the shrimp and grits; fried chicken is a must, too. At some spots, you order fried chicken for the breading — thick and crispy, with points and ridges that snap off in crackly bits. At Low Country Kitchen, you order it for the bird. Breaded once, not twice, for a thin, golden shell, the meat is the real star, abundantly juicy thanks to its two-day soak, first in brine and then in a buttermilk hot sauce, with just enough shell to add seasoning and crispiness. You can order it in buckets of five or twelve pieces — or even as an adult, go for the kids’ three-piece boneless order, a real bargain at brunch.
Which is handy, because the fried chicken doesn’t come with sides, not even a few biscuits. This is easy to remedy, though with sides ranging from $4.25 to $7.75 and most entrees in the $20s, such add-ons can add up to a big bill. Okra is cut into irregularly shaped pebbles, dipped in cornmeal and fried until addictively crunchy and golden. Collard greens are dynamite, with lingering smokiness and mellowness from a bacon-onion caramel. Saucy, two-cheese macaroni comes topped with toasted biscuit breadcrumbs, the crunch luring you into taking a few more bites after you thought you were done. Skip the boiled peanuts, as tongue-numbingly salty as water you gargle with, but don’t overlook the buttermilk biscuits, which can be ordered as a starter with fried chicken and pepper jelly or as a side, where they shine with a dab of honey or housemade preserves.
Low Country Kitchen isn’t strictly a classic. The roster has overtly contemporary elements, such as a salad of shishitos, cantaloupe and mint, and a BLT with fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and pork belly. The kitchen is also adept at using citrus to lighten traditionally heavy fare, adding lemon juice to the gravy that goes along with the shrimp and grits, for example, and orange zest to pecan pie in a valiant attempt to rein in its decadence. But it’s not so contemporary that dishes get deconstructed, or that elements like bacon and gravy get the boot in favor of vegetable-forward fare.
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“We ordered no vegetables!” said a woman celebrating her birthday one night, half lamenting, half laughing. “No,” corrected her friend, who, like all the guys at the table, was sporting a gingham shirt straight out of a J. Crew catalogue. “There’s a fried green tomato.” Those fried tomatoes are good enough to order on their own, with a cornmeal crust that holds on as you dip each bite into limey avocado dressing. The shishito salad was not, with melon that was under-ripe, dressing that was over-applied, and peppers that were uniformly green, not blistered. (That salad is no longer on the menu.)
But you don’t go to Low Country Kitchen for salads. You go for fried things, creamy things, cheesy things and boozy things. Above all, you go for the grits...and all of their benefits.
Select menu items:
Buttermilk biscuits $7.50
Fried green tomatoes $7
Collard greens $7.50
Mac and cheese $5.75
Fried okra $7.25
Fried chicken, five-piece $18.75
Shrimp and grits $22.75
Kids’ boneless fried chicken $5.75
Low Country Kitchen, 1575 Boulder Street, 720-512-4168, lowrestaurant.com. Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday