Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Pizza and beer go together like, well, everything good and proper in the universe. And while we've been blessed in these parts with some excellent pizza joints and a growing number of great craft breweries, Vino's Brewpub at Seventh and Chester has been the only place in town to combine the two into a one-stop shop for local beer and pizza by the slice or pie. So when Jeff Trine, owner of Arkansas-based mini-chain Damgoode Pies announced that he had signed a lease for the River Market space once occupied by Boscos with plans to open a Damgoode-branded brewpub, we gave a cheer. And when we learned that Trine had brought on former Boscos brewer Josh Quattlebaum and gypsy-brew mastermind Josiah Moody to design Damgoode's new signature brews, the stars seemed aligned in all the right ways.
At first glance, Damgoode River Market is exactly what we've come to expect from any of its locations, from the "Damgoode Shirt" clad staff to the snarky menus full of wonderfully awful puns and snappy descriptions of custom pizzas, sauce choices, salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes and appetizers. It's added more than just house-made beer to the repertoire, though — an area just beyond the long bar has been turned into a pizza-by-the-slice counter, a nod to the downtown lunch crowds who often want something quick, small and inexpensive to quell midday hunger.
On our first trip in, it was the slice bar that drew our attention, and we were pleased with the wide stainless steel seating area that allows diners to watch their slices go into the flaming mouth of an oven dedicated solely to slices. And with slices starting at $3, the price fit our lunch budget. Our slice bar foray came in the restaurant's first week of operation, and it was clear that the new system was still a work in progress — the two employees behind bar were very friendly but seemed unsure how to balance ringing in tickets, preparing orders and grabbing beers from the main bar. Our ordered slices of pepperoni took a little longer than they probably should have (and could have used a little longer in the oven), yet somehow managed to arrive to us before our beers, which we watched hang out forlorn at the end of the bar for quite a while before someone noticed them. But we always appreciate a restaurant staff that acknowledges such kinks by being cheerful and apologetic, so we easily forgave their opening jitters.
Unfortunately, those jitters were still present at our next visit. We chose to dine on the patio, which may have been a mistake on a busy Friday night where none of the staff seemed sure of just which tables they were serving. The food, however, was excellent. Our meatball starter ($4.99 for three, $9.49 for six) was exactly what we want out of a meatball — tender without falling apart, moist without being sloppy and loaded with garlic and spices. The meatballs are served with a dish of Damgoode's original red sauce, and after our last delicious bites had been dipped and consumed we seriously considered ordering a second round, but decided not to when our pizza arrived. We did note that these tasty meatballs are available in sandwich form ($9.99) and atop angel hair pasta ($9.99), facts that led to an immediate solemn vow to return to eat another day.
We enjoy several of Damgoode's custom pizzas, including the meat-centric Hog, the chock-full-of-artichokes Artie and the salty, savory Greek — but our go-to pie remains the Underdog ($6.99-$29.99). Finely ground hamburger and sweet red and yellow peppers make for a joyful combination of toppings, while the spicy pink sauce provides a delightful underpinning that makes each bite a pleasure. Onions, black olives and cheddar cheese perform admirably in their supporting roles, resulting in one of the most well-rounded flavor profiles of any pizza around. The version that hit our table was just as good as expected, and the cooking issues that marred our slice experience were nowhere to be seen with this whole pie. How good was it? Well, even after our meatball feast we did not require a take-out box for pizza leftovers.
Of course, no review of a brewpub would be complete without the tough task of sampling the house brews. At each of our several visits, the brewery had three of their unique beers on tap, two under the Damgoode Beer label and one under Josiah Moody's Moody Brews label. The Moody-branded beer, a saison brewed with hibiscus called Aria's Beer, is a light pink pleasure to drink, with a slight tangy flavor that adds nice high notes without being too shrill. Moody has shown great skill with the wild yeast strains that make this style so unpredictable, and the Aria's is just another example of his fine work.
Fans of lighter beers will find a lot to love about the Red Ribbon Golden Ale, a beer that Damgoode is marketing as their own PBR — but which tastes far better than any PBR we've ever had. Crisp and refreshing, we foresee this beer becoming a summertime go-to for those days when the only thing to do to escape the sun is to hide away somewhere with air conditioning. It's also a fantastic "pizza beer," perfect for washing down slice after slice.
Like things with a little more heft to them? The Damgoode Pale Ale is just the thing. Darker, hoppier and with just the right hit of malt on the finish, this pale is a quite quaffable solid brew. Again, the pizza-and-beer experience is right on the mark with this brew, a three-for-three for brews that left us thinking that the future is pretty bright for brewing in the River Market.
On the whole, the good things happening at Damgoode River Market far outweigh the few hiccups in service we experienced. The kitchen is turning out quality food, and the brewing operations have introduced a winning lineup with their first three beers. As the Arkansas brewery scene grows, it's going to become harder and harder for new breweries to stand out, but with the one-two punch of quality products and the Damgoode name, we're confident there's a long and delicious tenure ahead for the River Market location — and as pizza and beer are more a way of life to us rather than just a meal option, we couldn't be happier.
With warm weather upon us, Damgoode has prime patio real estate in the city at the new River Market location. Enjoy your pizza, pasta or sandwich with a fantastic view of the Arkansas River — with a bridge-based light show thrown in free of charge.