“I am in my nineties,” writes Uncle Joe, the restaurant’s namesake, who was raised in poverty in southern China during World War II and went on to achieve financial success as a manufacturer of Star Wars action figures. “Maybe cha shao gave me my long life.” Apparently just eating some cha shao isn’t enough, though: Upon further reading of his bio on the cocktail menu, I learned that Uncle Joe ate his beloved barbecued pork in large quantities: “The amount of cha shao he can devour in one sitting would astonish many men decades younger.”
About to celebrate my own big birthday — not my hundredth, but one that’s prompting thoughts of longevity all the same — I figured I could use all the help I can get. “I’ll have the devil cha shao,” I told the server, then sat back and waited for my fountain of youth.
Good thing it was coming, too, because I swear I lost a few years waiting for the dish to be delivered. Why, I don’t know, as we were the only people in the spacious restaurant, save two guests watching a game at the bar. When the boneless pork shoulder finally arrived, though, it looked better than any elixir I’d ever seen. Marinated for two days and then roasted, it had that sticky, brownish veneer that drives barbecue lovers crazy, whether they’re from Kansas City or Hong Kong. Lacking a knife, I wrested a piece with my fork, then gave up the metal utensil entirely in favor of my fingers, the better to intimately appreciate the meat. Brown from its long soak in soy, it whispered of star anise, cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorns. The pork was pleasantly sweet, too — not from honey, as some recipes call for, but maltose, a powder favored by cooks in China. The pork had obviously been mopped with care, with layer upon layer of caramelized sugars, spices and umami-bearing soy. I couldn’t believe my luck: The secret to long life — in Uncle Joe’s view, at least — was literally at my fingertips!
Then I took a few more bites. Underneath that alluring finish, the magic began to dissipate. Where was the prized fatty rim? Where was the moist meat? Where was the heat that gave this cha shao its devilish name? What sat before me had been cooked too long, the fat rendered away to nearly nothing. The meat was dry, the heat factor nonexistent. This wasn’t something I wanted to devour in quantities that would astonish men decades younger. In fact, it wasn’t something I wanted to devour at all.
If only owner Dr. Dennis Law had been at the table. (He wasn’t, of course; my need for anonymity forbids hobnobbing with restaurateurs.) Had he seen the pork, he would’ve understood my disappointment. “If you serve lean cha shao in Hong Kong, they complain vociferously,” says Law, son of Uncle Joe and a retired surgeon turned restaurateur/international entertainment producer. Law, who has been in Denver since 1973, would certainly know how Hong Kong residents like their cha shao: He opened the original Uncle Joe’s in Hong Kong two years ago.
The fact that I was complaining (albeit silently) about lean cha shao is ironic, given that the goal of the Hong Kong outpost was to work out the kinks prior to opening in Denver, where Law sees an opportunity for the concept’s expansion. “We opened [in Hong Kong] purely to test formulas and things in a truly authentic fashion,” he says. “I think it’s very hard to do things authentically and get formulas going with restaurant workers who have never been to Asia.” But this Uncle Joe’s has had bigger kinks to work out than the occasional leanness of its cha shao. From the start, there’s been confusion over what kind of restaurant it’s trying to be: upscale Chinese or an order-at-the-counter fast-casual, which is how the restaurant operated for the first two weeks before its switch to full service.
With authenticity the goal, it’s no wonder that of all of the small plates, soups, salads and entrees I ordered at Uncle Joe’s, the items that stood out were straight from Hong Kong. The two menus don’t overlap completely; some dishes like congee have been left off the Denver menu, replaced by American crowd-pleasers like wings. That’s a shame, because given the choice, I’d rather eat something more authentic, like Uncle Joe’s mapo tofu. In America, we associate tofu with vegetarian spa cuisine, but here it pairs up with ground pork in a spicy brown bean sauce that more than lives up to its billing as “kick ass.” (Yep, the menu really calls it that.) While a dish called Kobe beef was actually made with American wagyu, it was nevertheless a table favorite, the thinly sliced meat as tender as if it had been braised, not just wok-tossed in the robust apple-Asian pear barbecue sauce. Fiery Sichuan peppercorn oil, which slicks everything from vegetable-based side dishes to entrees with its reddish hue, makes you want to track down the generations of cooks who trained us to associate Chinese food with syrupy sesame chicken and demand explanations. This oil is made with so many secret ingredients, it reminds me of a Mexican grandmother’s mole; taste it carefully and you’ll discover spices (cardamom, charred ginger, anise) and citrus (dried orange peel) underneath the numbing heat.
But authenticity goes only so far given uneven execution, as my devil cha shao proved. Siu mai pork dumplings were dried out, their wrappers wrinkled as if they’d spent too much time not in the steamer, but the sun. Dishes that came from the wok, be they edamame, green beans or chicken in the Sichuan jumping chicken, tasted boiled, steamed and poached, with no char or other tasty evidence that they’d seen high heat. Deconstructed bao came with pleasantly fatty cha shao, but it had been caramelized to the point of being burnt.
Deep-fried salt-and-pepper tofu needed more than salt and pepper to convince a friend that it wasn’t a deep-fried sponge. Greens in the mango noodle salad had enough dressing for three salads, and the noodles were mushy. Staff also needed training beyond the basics of filling water glasses and delivering plates. Appetizers weren’t cleared before entrees arrived, making for a messy, unappetizing squeeze at the table. And one night when I asked a server to describe the mapo tofu, all she could offer was, “Uh, if you like tofu, it’s very popular.”
A talented kitchen team — culinary director Thach Tran, previously the executive sous-chef at ChoLon, and executive chef Ryan Baldwin, former chef de cuisine at Sarto’s — is taking steps to address these lapses. A sous-chef was hired after my visits, and the kitchen is being remodeled to allow for the high-BTU burners needed for wok cooking. “We’re building a better and more exciting menu,” Tran says. “The original dishes are great, but not enough to draw attention.” So look for individual fire pots, which Law says are trendy in Hong Kong, plus higher-end entrees such as clay-pot rice with braised pork belly and scratch desserts such as amaretto-soy gelée. Tran estimates that a quarter of the updated menu, scheduled for an early November release, will be new.
Such changes are consistent with the chefs’ high-end backgrounds, and will bring the food in line with the downtown environment and the space itself, with its long bar, vibrant purple walls and artsy mural featuring a red-robed dancer by skyscrapers and a giant black calligraphic ring. But is it too late? Have months of flux taxed diners’ patience? And is the flux even over? This location has moved toward sit-down service and higher-end fare, but Law says that “all other duplicates will go back to fast and casual.”
Uncle Joe’s offers glimmers of promise, but who knows how long it will take for that promise to be fully realized? Good thing we have the secret to long life. Cha shao, anyone?
891 14th Street, #100
Joe’s sliders $7
Siu mai $6
Sichuan green beans $6
Sichuan edamame $6
Crispy tofu $5
Devil cha shao $12
Jumping chicken $11
“Kick ass” mapo tofu $11
Kobe beef $14
Mango noodle salad $10
Uncle Joe's is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Learn more at unclejoeshkbistro.com.