Cafe Society

Tommy Lee's Highland noodle shop will bowl you over

Tofu isn't as esoteric as it once was. Even if you're not vegetarian or vegan, you've probably had it a few times — perhaps with berries in a protein smoothie or cubed and fried in lettuce wraps. But even card-carrying bean-curd fans might overlook the chilled tofu at Uncle, Tommy Lee's noodle shop in Highland that went from zero to sixty — i.e., not yet open to always packed — in less time than it would take a Bugatti Veyron. (That's 2.4 seconds, for you curious types.) Ramen, not tofu, is what people wait two-plus hours for, what people invoke the name of New York's famed Momofuku over, what people might desperately try (and fail) to re-create at home.

See also: Behind the scenes at Uncle

And yet the tofu — so simple, so delicious — is just as eye-opening as the ramen. Cut in slices, the shiny white curd is slicked with soy, dark sesame oil, vinegar and ginger, then finished with scallions and wakame chazuke: rice balls and crispy dried seaweed. Strong flavors, to be sure, but because the tofu isn't marinated, you taste more than the dark-brown dressing, the way you taste more than cherries when you bite into cheesecake. Remember the first time you had Greek yogurt and couldn't get over how different it was from Yoplait? Your brain will make the same flip after one bite of this appetizer, so custard-like it could be a savory dessert.

Like that tofu, much about Uncle is surprising. There's the name, of course, a Chinese term of respect and endearment that says little about what goes on inside this cramped, wood-paneled, counter-driven space. There's the way the restaurant has caught on, which seems to have surprised Lee, a 32-year-old Denver native of Chinese descent, as much as anyone. "I feared what I wanted to do was too obscure," he says. Most important, there's the fact that Lee lacks serious credentials: With no big backers, he borrowed money from his family; he never went to cooking school; and he doesn't even call himself a chef, having only spent two summers at McCormick's Fish House and a few years at Chipotle.

But Lee is smart, and he loves food. And with veterans in the kitchen to back him up — namely Travis Masar, former executive chef at Aria, and Jon Mendoza from Opus and ChoLon — Lee has turned the flavors of his youth into the restaurant of the moment.

The menu is small: just a handful of appetizers, steamed buns, a few vegetables and the noodle dishes. Over and over I watched servers, backs bent, eyes level with seated guests, patiently explain how to put the dishes together as a meal, trying valiantly to be heard over the din of music and voices in a space with no soft surfaces to absorb the sound. Some regulars — often sporting baseball caps and tattoos and hungry from a lengthy wait — decide to order family-style, and as improbable as it sounds with those brothy bowls of noodles, I thought this was a good idea. Until, that is, our steaming bowl of mushroom ramen arrived. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because ramen isn't where a meal at Uncle begins.

Sometimes dinner starts with sesame pancakes, a version of soft tacos filled not with carnitas, but with duck confit, heated to order. Less often, judging from my time at the counter, it begins with that delightful chilled tofu. And always, it seems, it opens with steamed buns, made in-house daily, their shiny white skins folded over five kinds of fillings. The crispy cod came highly recommended, but the battered fish and mayo-based sauce on a white-flour bun was too similar to a fish sandwich at the beach or, worse, McDonald's. Better was the pork belly, two fatty squares, crisped on the griddle and topped with hoisin, small diced cucumbers and scallions. Just as good was the vegetarian option, with spicy mayo, slivers of red onion and fat slices of avocado, an already rich vegetable made even more buttery from a stint on the griddle.

You might follow up with a small plate of sugar snap peas, flamed on the stove and finished with Korean red chile powder and plenty of soy sauce (and oil), or a deep bowl of fried Brussels sprouts, noteworthy for the underlying nuoc cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce) and wisps of mint, Thai basil and cilantro. But don't overdo it with starters, because large servings of noodles are headed your way as fast as the guy at the noodle station can ladle them.

If you haven't had a good bowl of ramen before, if you haven't been to Momofuku or, closer to home, Bones, our Best Hip Noodle Bar in the Best of Denver 2012, you might expect something akin to matzoh ball soup, only with those wrinkled noodles we all remember from college or the cash-poor days thereafter. Ramen here is nothing of the sort. Dip your chopsticks into the sixty-ounce bowl, and you'll first pinch into a thick layer of toppings, reminiscent of a French salade composé, only with self-contained mounds of, say, cilantro, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Push past the toppings and discover the gigantic tangle of wheat noodles, ever so curly and slightly yellow from alkaline salts added to stave off mushiness.

Resist the urge to cut or disentangle them. Slurping is not only easier, it's expected, so forget everything your mom taught you — all that blather about sitting up straight and not smacking your lips — and let loose your inner child. Bend your head low to the bowl. Slurp away. Use the wide spoon to scoop up some broth, and when you're done, take the bowl in your hands and tip it to your lips to savor the last sips. No one will notice, much less judge you. This is harder to do, of course, if you've ordered family-style, since numerous people will have claims on the dregs, which is precisely the unhappy predicament I found myself in with that shared bowl of mushroom ramen.

Novices give noodles all the attention, but it is the broth that makes the dish. Unlike French stocks, which should be kept at the gentlest of simmers to ensure clarity, stock used in Japanese ramen hops at a rolling boil for hours (up to nine at Uncle), emulsifying the fat and turning the stock cloudy. Here, the meat-based version is made from pig's feet, pork shank and chicken, which explains why the kimchi ramen it's used in, with spicy, housemade kimchi and savory morsels of Berkshire pork floating atop the noodles, is so heady. Why the mushroom ramen stock, which lacks these flavor-giving bones, is every bit as good — dare I say better? — is harder to pin down, and might explain why Japanese shelves are stocked with ramen magazines the way ours highlight secretly pregnant stars.

Here are a few of the secrets. Lee starts his mushroom ramen with dashi, a Japanese broth traditionally flavored with kombu (edible kelp) and bonito (dried fish) flakes, only here the latter is left out to keep it vegetarian. Then he adds scratch-made mushroom stock, miso, chipotle peppers and soy sauce, and, prior to serving, mushroom powder, roasted garlic butter and a drizzle of the black-garlic oil known as mayu. The result is a coffee-colored broth so multi-dimensional in flavor, all other soups — ramen or otherwise — might from now on seem as flat as a canvas waiting for paint.

There are other starch-based dishes here, too, including bibimbap, with tender, garlicky strips of sirloin flap rubbing elbows with spicy cucumbers, trumpet mushrooms and a fried egg over a heap of rice. Also popular are the Sichuan noodles with pork and both leaves and stems of Chinese broccoli. Take note that these fat udon noodles can polarize a table, not just because of the texture — they're probably the only food product you've ever chewed the recommended twenty or so times before swallowing — but because of the Sichuan pepper that gives the dish a strong, potentially off-putting citrus note.

Given the long waits, you can't always choose where you'll sit and slurp. If a counter seat becomes available, by all means take it so that you can watch the action. But at Uncle, you don't need to see it to believe it, as the saying goes. After one taste — either of that chilled tofu or the broth with wrinkled ramen — you'll happily brave the line again and again.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz