With Uncle, Tommy Lee proves he knows how to use the old noodle...and make it new
A look at Uncle, Denver's Best New Restaurant.
The week before I arrived in the Mile High City for a spring vacation, Westword named Uncle the area's Best New Restaurant. That propelled Tommy Le's restaurant straight to the top of my tome-like list of must-visit spots that had opened since I moved away from this town nine months ago. I was curious about the place because of its Best of Denver 2013 honor -- restaurants continue to get better and better here, so I imagine picking the number-one spot was harder than ever this year -- but I was also intrigued by the fact that Uncle is Denver's first real entrant in the ramen noodle shop category, a category that I've explored relentlessly since my first taste of real ramen at New York City's famous Japanese import Ippuddo five years ago.
Spicy chicken ramen at Uncle.
Since then, I've eaten my way through countless restaurants dedicated to the stuff, slurping up innumerable bowls of what has become my undisputed desert-island food. I love versions of the dish that range from traditional tonkotsu, in all of its pork-bone broth glory, to grainy miso spiked with upper-lip-sweat-inducing hot peppers and an intense rush of ginger to broth-less mazemen done in a carbonara style with pancetta and egg.
When I lived here, I bemoaned the lack of a ramenya -- traditional or otherwise -- and while I tried hard to content myself with the decent but not stellar bowls found in precious few spots along the Front Range, I considered the countless ramen shops that dot the neighborhoods of New York City to be a significant pro in my decision to move there. Because Denver was slow to jump on the ramen bandwagon -- to give you some idea of how slow, consider the fact that the New York Times just ran a story about how izakayas are the next frontier in Japanese dining now that the ramen craze is reaching saturation point -- it was inevitable that its first real stab at noodle glory would come with an onslaught of comparisons to what came before it.
Tommy Lee tried to control the predictable accusations of idea-stealing by naming his muse, the venerable Momofuku Noodle Bar, early. Good move, since he opted to build out his narrow restaurant with blonde wood paneling, giving the place the distinct look and feel of the East Village joint. (That a number of ramenyas in New York and beyond feature this exact same aesthetic is probably worth noting, too, but perhaps those aren't as frequently visited as David Chang's restaurant.) There's a wait list and a packed house every night of the week at Uncle, which only adds to the feeling of mimicry in the ambience -- though the 45 minutes I nursed a beer next door at Highland Tap while waiting for a counter stool felt like a mere pregnant conversational pause when compared with the two and a half hours I've eagerly accepted at some of the most popular ramen spots in the Big Apple.
The menu also looks similar: from the categories to the descriptions to the sans-serif typeface. Add a culinary focus on less traditional ramen, and Momofuku definitely deserved an anticipatory nod of gratitude. But Lee took it a step further by wholeheartedly embracing the link when he told various publications that a pilgrimage to Noodle Bar made him realize he could do that in Denver (leaving exactly what "that" was somewhat vague); Uncle's website even prominently features a review that describes Lee's vision as a single-minded focus on replicating Chang's East Village spot in Lower Highland.
In this era of Google, obsessive food blogging and frequent air travel, it's probably best to cite your restaurant inspiration sources as soon as you file your liquor-license application. If you don't, you run the risk of some snarky writer completely blowing past whatever is going on in the kitchen in favor of calling you out for not giving credit where credit is due (and if a writer doesn't do that, you can bet that a commenter will pick up the slack).
But Lee did himself a bit of a disservice by putting so much up-front emphasis on that one ramen joint as a catalyst for his own spot. Persistent comparison followed, and as a result, every time I've heard Uncle mentioned since it opened, it's been compared to Momofuku, often with a backhanded insult that acknowledges Uncle as good for Denver ramen, but inherently inferior because it's a cover band for the New York City original: fun, believable-ish, but really only suitable because the real thing is unattainable. (Too expensive! Too far away! And probably already booked!).
I'd forgotten that this kind of comparison is an issue here in Denver. A restaurateur travels to a coastal city and gets an idea for a restaurant he or she would like to open here, and we call it a rip-off. But why does acknowledging inspiration from another source automatically make something inferior? David Chang is undisputedly one of the most original and groundbreaking chefs of this generation, but even he leans on tried-and-true culinary techniques and traditions. New York City chefs blatantly borrow from each other and their compatriots in other cities all the time. That's why there were shishito peppers on almost every single menu in the city last summer.
Uncle may have been inspired by Momofuku, but it's a Denver original.
Obvious similarities aside, Uncle is no more like Momofuku Noodle Bar than any other trendy noodle bar that's opened in this country since Chang's place hit the map and redefined our view of ramen back in 2004. In fact, some of what is on the menu at Uncle is unlike any ramen I've had anywhere else. Like all worthy ramen joints, the kitchen composes its dishes by using intensely complex and tasty broths as a base for a nest of noodles and other delicious accoutrements. And far from being a carbon copy, Uncle has a unique point of view that straddles tradition and location...and turns out to be uniquely Denver.
The chashu seems most rooted in Japanese history: Fat and rich with collagen, the soup has nearly the consistency of over-easy egg yolk, and it leaves a sticky sheen on your lips as you sip it. The kimchi broth begins to explore the intersection of Japanese and Korean cuisines, and I suspect this is what really invokes the Momofuku comparison these days, since Chang integrates a lot of Korean influence into his menu. This cross-cultural flavor sharing started in Asia, though, not the East Village. So while Lee's rust-colored soup -- dotted with pepper that imparts a dry heat that's tempered by garlic and a fresh burst of ginger -- has a point of reference for me, it doesn't call forth any particular restaurant, especially because that broth forms the base for a somewhat traditional (albeit definitely modernized) mix of noodles, braised pork, a poached egg and napa cabbage, plus a generous handful of fresh cilantro and a dusting of sesame seeds.
It's with the spicy chicken broth that you can really see how Lee is starting to push at the edges of the cuisine. The soup is refined and delicate, yet redolent with generous quantities of garlic and salt, giving it the rib-sticking richness characteristic of Japanese junk food. The broth is layered with the unique peppered tang and grainy, miso-like texture imparted by tahini, a sesame-seed paste that is used in some traditional preparations of ramen but most commonly associated with Middle Eastern foods like hummus. The best trick of all, though, is that the soup is opaque and heavy-looking but eats lightly -- with a crystal-clear spice that reverberates across your tongue like a sharp whistle, leaving your palate feeling strangely invigorated and thereby inviting you to keep slurping long after your stomach is full. Was it inspired by the spicy miso ramen at Momofuku? Frankly, I don't care. It's distinct from that dish, and I want to eat the Uncle version on a regular basis.
After tapping into my ramen nerdery, Lee also unveiled an incredibly Denver-centric touch that he's been working on: a green-chile broth infused with that green-pepper Hatch heat that doesn't exist at all on the East Coast. I hope he calls it Denver ramen and that it establishes the noodle soup as an inextricable part of our dining culture.
Lee's off to a good start regardless: I'm already craving that spicy chicken ramen now that I'm back in New York City -- and the fact that I seriously doubt I'm going to be able to find a suitable substitute at Momofuku or anywhere else is a major coup for Denver.
I don't know if that's why Uncle nabbed honors as Best New Restaurant, but I certainly support the choice.