Review: LowDown Brewery + Kitchen is serious about good beer and good times

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LowDown Brewery + Kitchen 800 Lincoln Street 720-524-8065

The jokes started pouring in before we'd even set foot in Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen, a brewpub that opened in the Golden Triangle neighborhood this winter. We couldn't stop them, not when the door off the street led us through a foyer to a gym that shares the same building. "Now we know where we can go to work it off," my friend quipped as we hurried past.

See also: A Closer Look at LowDown Brewery + Kitchen

Laughter continued as we scanned the menu, an assemblage of salads, sandwiches, pizzas and entrees branded with the kind of pun-oriented names that usually result from late-night brainstorming sessions when everything's funny and you just had to be there to get it. There's the "New Mi," a play on Vietnamese banh mi; the "Kurt Brussel," a roasted-Brussels-sprouts starter; and the "Green Zzz's," with grilled zucchini, sweet-potato gnocchi and puttanesca. But the one we chuckled about most was a dish my friend -- whose Catholic upbringing makes him far from a pottymouth -- ended up ordering. "I'll have the chicken," he said, trying not to repeat the words "Bad Motha-clucker" that were listed on the menu. The server hesitated; maybe he's also a lapsed Catholic? "You mean the, uh, clucker?" he asked politely. The rest of us did our best to suppress our laughter, not wanting the server to think we were making fun of him.

The cutesy names -- which mimic the ones on the beer list, such as Holy Ale and C3PA -- do more than elicit a few laughs; they set the tone from the start that LowDown doesn't take itself too seriously. That's good in a craft-beer scene that's evolving as fast as Denver's is, with more than thirty breweries within the city limits and another dozen or so scheduled to open this year. But the playfulness also obscures what's going on with the menu, which is a purposeful departure from the usual pub grub of nachos, burgers and wings. "When we originally talked about the menu, we said wanted a pub atmosphere but we didn't want bar food," recalls Philip Phifer, who co-owns LowDown with award-winning brewer and fellow Rock Bottom alum Scott O'Hearn. "We wanted people not to feel guilty about eating here."

To that end, the owners tapped Brendon Flood, a 27-year-old chef and homebrewer from Cape Cod, who most recently spent two years as kitchen manager at Vine Street Pub. Flood instantly warmed to the idea, developing a menu that's not health-conscious in the manner of True Food Kitchen, but nonetheless feels lighter and fresher than most hops-house boards.

A vegetarian friend had a hard time choosing between the house salad, with pumpkin seeds, dried apricots and jicama, and the Cusco, with red quinoa, dried cranberries and pickled onions. She chose the latter, as pleased by the tart preserved-lemon vinaigrette as the fact that it didn't need chicken to count as a meal. Soups are used as signs of the season, and soon Flood will replace hot soups -- such as the vibrant parsley-artichoke I enjoyed recently -- with cold ones, including gazpacho, cucumber-melon and carrot-ginger.

The absence of a fryer also helps lighten the menu. Instead of shoestrings, onion rings or steak fries, there are roasted fingerling potatoes, dipped not in Heinz, but housemade ketchup made with organic tomatoes, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne. I wish I'd had other uses for that ketchup -- and that's something I don't normally say, since I'm not a fan of sweet condiments. But LowDown doesn't serve burgers, either, in part because the kitchen is only outfitted with an oven, a four-top stove and a panini press. So I looked for the next-best option and wound up with the Chad, one of eight crispy, thin-crust pies on the summer menu. Sprinkled with ground beef, tomatoes, bacon, mushrooms, thinly sliced pickles and a light smear of Cheddar sauce made from extra-sharp Tillamook, the pizza -- a deconstructed burger, really -- tasted far better than expected. The pickles do sound odd, but they delivered the salty accent that pulled everything together; in fact, the pie could've used a few more of them.

Keep reading for the rest of our review of LowDown Brewery. Flood estimates that pizzas account for nearly half of LowDown's food sales. Maybe that's because carbs go so well with beer, or maybe it's because the pizzas are treated as global canvases, much the way they are at California Pizza Kitchen. While they'd no doubt make Napoletanos frown in dismay, the irreverent toppings came together well. The cheese-less Calcutta tipped its hat to India, with chunks of tender brined chicken, tomatoes, cilantro and cucumber-yogurt sauce on a yellow-curry base. The Taos, a bestseller for good reason, honored our chile-producing neighbor to the south, with green-chile pulled pork, pickled onions, cilantro, a sprinkling of queso fresco and zigzags of crema brightened up with lime zest.

But Flood doesn't just play fast and loose with pizza toppings; he plays with other ingredients, terms and styles, too. That crema on the pizza isn't actually the Mexican product, but sour cream. Devils on Horseback aren't bacon-wrapped dates resurfacing from the '70s, but pork-hugged peppadews stuffed with Gorgonzola and dried apricots. Brisket in what the menu calls Kansas City-style barbecue sauce isn't smoked, but braised in ale. Hummus on the Left Coast sandwich features edamame, not chickpeas. Such substitutions might have raised an eyebrow at restaurants that take themselves more seriously. At LowDown, the only thing I raised was a glass of Selfish, one of three constants on an otherwise evolving list of ten or so beers on tap.

This is not to say that all the cleverness was successful. The "Bad Motha-clucker" was bad in the sense of the slang, meaning it was a fine piece of chicken leg stuffed with artichokes, capers and pecorino. But the Brussels sprouts that shared the plate were just plain bad, with leaves so charred, they reminded me of what's left in the campfire when I douse it for the night. The brisket, though tender, wasn't as good as it would've been out of the smoker, and the accompanying slaw, made with broccoli rather than cabbage, tasted like mushy florets tossed in water. But the sweet-potato mash made up for it, and was every bit as rich and fluffy (thanks to plenty of heavy cream and butter) as the server had said it would be.

Edamame hummus, a tasty mash-up promising lemongrass, galangal and ginger, should've been terrific on the Left Coast. But it had been spread so thinly, and the layers of mixed greens and tomato were so thick, the sandwich wound up like something my dad used to call "wish sandwiches," made when the fridge was empty and he wished for something else. The Foghorn Leghorn, a deconstructed chicken salad, was also dry, with not enough of the condiment (in this case, cucumber-yogurt sauce tossed with grapes and cashews) to flavor and moisten the grilled chicken.

At restaurants where food is the main attraction, such mistakes would cloud the meal. But they're easy to fix -- and besides, you don't come to LowDown primarily to eat. You come to sit at the bar and watch a game. You come to play bean-bag toss on the shaded patio. You come to down a few well-crafted beers and laugh with friends. And you come so you don't go home feeling guilty about what you ate. In all these areas, LowDown Brewery is already succeeding -- no joke.

LowDown Brewery + Kitchen LowDown Brewery + Kitchen Devils on Horseback $12 Cusco salad $10 Soup $4/7 Chad pizza $15/23 Calcutta pizza $13/21 Taos pizza $14/22 Left Coast $9 Foghorn Leghorn $10 Bad Motha-clucker $15 Black Betty's boozy beef $16

LowDown Brewery + Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sunday- Thursday and 11-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Find more at facebook.com/LowDownBrewery.

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