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ROCK BOTTOM

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I'd heard about the Rock Bottom restaurant and brewery two years ago when the mayor speculated about what exciting new establishments might come Downtown under his Fifth and Forbes plan; one schematic even showed Rock Bottom replacing a favorite Downtown haunt of mine. But the mayor's plan scattered to the winds, and Rock Bottom ended up over at The Waterfront in Homestead, a convivial atmosphere for chain eateries. And since this Rock Bottom had merely replaced a piece of empty lot near Dave & Buster's, I harbored no ill will about its arrival. Rock Bottom and I would start with a clean slate.

I also started with the beer sampler, which was on special offer -- small glasses of all five brews for a dollar: Lumpy Dog light lager (the marketing crew might want to re-think this name, which frankly made me think of a diseased animal), Stacks pale ale, North Star amber, High Level brown ale and a brown porter. The Stacks and High Level beers had labels illustrating these two Homestead landmarks, and while I'm sure Rock Bottom's many other U.S. locations have similar but different "local" labels, it's nice that they made the effort. A chalkboard hanging from the ceiling listed each beer's specific gravity, "birthday" and alcohol content (3.9 to 5.3 percent). Not surprisingly, the headiest beer, the North Star amber at 5.3 percent, won my approval. The other beers could have used more flavor and body. The pale ale had a distinct lack of characteristic hoppiness.

For a chain eatery, Rock Bottom's interior is quite cozy, with lots of wood, large upholstered booths and ochre walls (ochre is surely this year's "in" color for new restaurants), all approximating an arts and crafts style. There are lots of windows dressed with wood blinds, through which a diner can watch twilight descend on TGIFridays across the road. What I don't understand is the lack of ceiling. It may be a design trick to create up-space, but I don't care to gaze upward and see HVAC pipes and the corrugated metal roof. I felt sorry for the Mission-style lead-and-mica lamps that hung forlornly in this industrial nothingness.

Most of the menu items featured one of their beers as an ingredient, but all the appetizers, except for the brown-ale-brushed pretzel, were beer-free. I chose the one with the goofiest name, the Titan Toothpicks ($7.75). I'd hate to see the mouth these might service: They looked like toothpicks all right -- four foot-long, tightly wrapped fried flour tortillas stuffed with smoked chicken and Monterey jack cheese. Imagine a very long tacquito. They came with a large helping of corn tortilla chips and four dips: barbecue sauce, salsa, sour cream and guacamole. They were quite tasty and could have easily been a meal.

Large portions are de rigueur here. I gasped when my order of chicken-fried steak ($10.50) arrived. The pummeled and fried steak was the size of a standard dinner plate. A mountain of white cheddar mashed potatoes dripping with a creamy corn gravy rose beside it. The meat was thin and bit grayish, but thankfully wasn't too chewy. There's plenty of "fried" with this dish; the steak is totally surrounded in fried batter. Trying to eat "lighter" -- pulling at least one side of the crunchy batter off -- I ended up with quite the pile of chicken-fried "skin." The side of coleslaw was fresh, with a sweet, creamy vinegar dressing with red onions added for sharpness.

My companion spoke well of his adobo-crusted pork loin ($13.75) -- two substantial slices of seasoned pork served with corn tortilla strips (they call them "frizzles") -- Spanish rice, a horseradish cream sauce and pico de gallo. The pork was moist and tender, and indeed it surrendered to the edge of his fork.

After we'd pushed aside our dinner platters, the waitress delivered this oddly worded statement: "We're choosing not to serve the carrot cake and the raspberry passion at this time." I longed to ask, "What? Why?" but suspected that they'd simply run out; after all, the couple across from me was enjoying a big slab of carrot cake. Instead, I had the key lime pie, which was, as our waitress had cautioned, big enough for two. And excellent. Too often, key lime pie is gimmicked up with green food coloring or lime Jell-O. This pie was made from real key limejuice, and had that curious dull yellow tone to prove it. It was also extremely tart -- as it should be -- with a shortbread cookie crust and big dollop of sweetened whipped cream to ease it down.

Only the future will tell if these pre-aged, pre-fab watering holes will actually age and acquire any genuine patina and unique character. Can these places get comfortably grubby? I'm sure it was unintentional, but that night their big neon sign was malfunctioning. Four letters were on the fritz and the joint screamed: "Rock Bo." No doubt someone from corporate would be dashing out to remedy it, but I thought it made the place look a little cooler -- casually dinged-up like longtime local favorites. * * 1/2

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