With so many great restaurants to choose from, cash-strapped Denver newcomers — challenged with rising rents and skinny paychecks — are finding it hard to have a fun night out without blowing the bank. Twenty- Something for Twenty-somethings will help you find hot destinations where you can enjoy cutting-edge cuisine in a stylish setting — all within a twenty-something budget ($29 or less per person). And you don't need to be under thirty to take these recommendations; just be ready for a great eating adventure.
It's no surprise that Denverites are still lining up to dine at Uncle owner Tommy Lee’s second restaurant, Hop Alley, which was selected by Westword as Best New Restaurant in 2016. Given the restaurant's status as one of the hottest spots in town, you might expect prices at Hop Alley to be prohibitive, but it is possible to dine there on a budget. Continue reading to learn how.
An unmarked building — with the exception of the one white star on the outside and the name printed in small letters on the door — is in keeping with Lee’s style. The outer façade is similar to that of Lee's first restaurant, Uncle; inside, the decor is open, clean-cut and comfortable. You'll notice that the wood over the kitchen section is burned using the traditional Japanese style of shou-sugi ban. From the staff to the music pumping through the speakers, the restaurant oozes style and "coolness." Your grandmother would probably enjoy the food here, but this isn't a restaurant for those expecting a typical Chinese dinner in a quiet restaurant; although the music sets the tone, it makes it difficult for simple catch-up conversation. So while Grandma might prefer to sit this one out, bring everyone else, because group dining is the way to go at Hop Alley.
The flavors on the menu are rich and powerful, with plates that are simply not to be missed — but also aren't designed for solo diners. While you can dine here with just two people, the menu is best served family style and makes for a fun four-top night, which is also a great way to stay within your budget. First, pick a drink based on your personality; I suggest the bar's take on the mint julep or the Old Fashioned. For a more beery route, go with Black Shirt Brewing's Foeder-Aged Stringbender Saison on tap or Stillwater’s Sake Saison. Not only do all of these drinks just rock, but they pair well with the food, too.
Start your meal with two smaller plates: the crispy rice and crispy pig ears. The rice is exactly as described — crunchy — but the flavor is more robust than you would imagine for a simple rice plate, conveying acidity from lime and brightness from cilantro. The fried pig ears are topped with a salad that balances the fattiness; the salty ears crunch in your mouth and then melt and mingle with the cold sauce and pepper and cucumber strips.
Your palate is now prepped and ready for the next round of dishes. The beef chow fun is simple: savory flank steak over noodles covered in leeks and a dark, soy-based sauce. This dish isn’t very sexy to eat, as the large strips of beef make handling with chopsticks a little awkward, but the flavor makes it worth the effort. To go with your chow fun, some green — in the form of an order of long beans — is appropriate. These beans are vibrant, with a salty, garlicky sauce and a hint of spice from the house sambal. They are cooked just through, with a noticeable al dente crunch. You'll find yourself seat-dancing as you sample bites; it's impossible not to.
The damage comes to $24.50 per person for four people, including one drink each. You'll leave satisfied but not stuffed, having experienced some of Denver's hottest dining. Here's how it breaks down:
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Mint Julep: $12
Old Fashioned: $12
Black Shirt Foeder-Aged Saison: $7
Stillwater - Saison Sake beer: $9
Crispy rice salad: $12
Crispy pig ears: $13
Beef chow fun: $22
Wok-tossed long beans: $12