Humble and unassuming at the busy intersection of 6th Avenue and Washington Street, Uoki is easy to overlook: The sign is missing the “i” in Uoki, and the neon marquee in the window reads “Seoul Food,” which many believe to be the restaurant's name (in fact it was, in a previous incarnation). What the restaurant lacks in outward character, though, it makes up for in heart. I'm generally critical of fusion restaurants, but this Korean-Japanese hybrid passed my test.
Chef-owner Mark Park has firsthand experience with both cultures as a native of South Korea who has been a sushi chef for more than 28 years, training under acclaimed Japanese chefs in the hospitality industry — and even learning to serve the legendary fugu (blowfish) in his home country. He moved to the U.S. in 2004 after meeting his wife, who was living in San Francisco at the time. As Silicon Valley rent skyrocketed, Park started exploring other parts of the country, focusing on Denver, which he’d heard from friends he would like. When he arrived, he noticed only one sushi restaurant making a name for itself, so he decided to set up shop.
Park has run his eatery tirelessly for eleven years, with his wife in the kitchen and his daughter serving customers when she’s not in school. Since I moved to the neighborhood and began frequenting Uoki, Park has become my Korean medicine man of sorts, throwing all sorts of goodies my way — from a special ginger tea when I was sick, to new sakes and soju to taste, to samples of an extra-secret sauce to make the standard California roll more interesting. He cares as much about his regulars as he does getting to know new faces, so sit at the bar and chat him up. He goes above and beyond for quality, working with a special fish distributor (which gets much of its catch directly from Japan) and making a yearly trek to Pueblo to pick up 300 pounds of Anaheim peppers for his housemade kimchi. And as one waiter joked, “I can’t read half the sake labels, but that means they’re good.”
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Uoki is the exact kind of cozy neighborhood restaurant you want next door, with a two-page menu of specialty rolls that includes super-crazy seasonal specials, from pumpkin spice in the fall to one topped with garlic cheese year-round. In short, you can tell plenty of time has gone into developing the creative combinations over the years to make them memorable, even if the restaurant's ambience isn’t.
As Denver’s restaurant scene booms and more competition pops up, Uoki has started offering lunchtime bento boxes for $9.99, with ten percent off for neighbors. The lunch special comes on a traditional Japanese lacquered tray that always has me picturing an Asian TV dinner; you can order it with any of the Korean entrees (minus the soups) with a teacup-sized shot of miso, four pieces of California roll, a large salad, a side of kimchi, a mountain of rice, and a bite of creamy tempura cheesecake — a sinfully indulgent dessert you'll wish there was more of.
My favorite selection is the tender and juicy bulgogi: marinated strips of beef sliced so thin you can't imagine they'd be filling, but the sweet, smoky flavor will quickly win you over. The portion size is just right for everything laid out on the bento; there's plenty of variety, but there's not so much food that you'll regret polishing off your tray — and I always do.
Verdict: A great lunch option if you’re in the area. Get to know the crew, become a local, and you’ll be part of the family, too.