First Look: Tommy Lee's Hop Alley Resurrects Denver's Old-School Chinatown

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For those of you who can't get enough of chef and restaurateur Tommy Lee's funky ramen bowls and Asian creations at Uncle, get ready: Tonight his new Chinese kitchen, Hop Alley, opens to the public.

"We are trying to serve 'authentic' Asian food and pair it with a more sophisticated bar program," says Lee, whose 57-seat restaurant is the latest to take root in RiNo. "We have around fifteen items on the menu that range from pretty authentic flavors and preparations that we worked through to some fusions."

Named after the Chinatown that was part of Denver in the 1870s, the menu that Lee and chef Todd Somma (from Uncle) developed showcase that history while adding a modern twist. Look for dishes including chilled tofu with bang bang sauce and peanuts; bone-marrow fried rice; a cumin lamb sandwich with koji mustard and pickled cucumber; tea-poached New Caledonia prawns with chamomile and Japanese smoked soy; and Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Right now, the most intricate and unusual dish you will see comes in the form of the Husband and Wife salad, a dish comprised of tongue, duck gizzards, Macanese-style chorizo and black vinegar. These are just some of the plates, and once the wood-fired grill gets going, expect items like Alamosa bass with green papaya and a Beijing duck roll.
"Our wood-fired grill is not traditional in Chinese food, but cool for us," says Lee. "We are planning on doing a whole grilled fish, a pork chop, smoking duck legs and pork belly on it."

The idea to install the grill came after a dinner at Bryan Dayton and Steven Redzikowski's Acorn, where the restaurant's wood-grilled octopus struck a nostalgic chord with him. "It tasted like it had come out of a wok and had that charred bitterness that comes from a wok range," says Lee. "So we thought it would be a nice aspect and add a charred, smoky element to some of our food."

As for the rest of the lineup, many of the plates garnered inspiration from Lee's own heritage and a pile of cookbooks that the chef collected and pored over with his staff. A quick peek at some of the titles revealed an array of new and old tomes such as The Chinese Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, and The Food of Taiwan, by Cathy Erway.

The food is served family style, a mode that complements the large-format wines Hop Alley also offers, thanks to wine director Matt Mulligan, formally of The Kitchen. And what kind of wine pairs with the sweet, spicy, salty and umami-rich flavors of Chinese food? For Mulligan, sparkling wine is one of his favorite ways of bringing out the best in the dishes. On the small, well-curated list, he offers a few by the glass and seven or so bottles.
You can also get a craft cocktail fashioned after your Chinese New Year animal. If you were born in, say, 1983, try the Pig, which features Pig's Nose scotch, Casoni, pear and chamomile. Or, if you were born in 1946, the Knob Creek rye, amaro and smoked-tea combination called the Dog is your drink. The man behind the bar program is Kam Mataraci, formally of Ste. Ellie and Old Major. Order a tipple at the table or sidle up to the nine-seat bar and watch the magic happen.

"It's a little more refined than Uncle, but we are still going for the same casualness and approachability," says Lee. "It's meant to be a place for the neighborhood and Denver, but we are trying to have fun and give our clientele something fun in the process."

Starting tonight, Hop Alley will be open Monday through Saturday, from 5:30 to 11 p,m.

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