This almost never happens in a restaurant: A waiter requests a shift-meal at night's end, "something spicy, with chicken," and instead of the chef throwing together whatever ingredients are cheap or expiring soon, he constructs something decent ... something actually so damn good, it makes the next menu and becomes a bestseller.
"It was an absolute accident," says Tommy Lee, Uncle's owner and self-described non-chef. But so goes the story of the spicy chicken ramen ($14), wherein Lee squirts chili oil, plus the tahini-based sauce that's otherwise found on his cold spicy sesame noodles ($13), into a bowl of chicken ramen. The result strikes something of a Thai tom kha gai tone, with a big broth not as velvety as a coconut-milk-infused one, but delicately creamy from that soy- and vinegar-cut sesame-paste sauce, diffused in the soup with scallion essence. Pop the bobbing poached egg, and its yolk adds a reinforcing richness.
"This is the most unique ramen here," says Lee. "It's not like anything in any shop in Japan or the U.S."
Not only has he been told that, but the Denver native's family hails from East Asia, where he's traveled often and appreciated the "little tiny focus of one thing" — shops that specialize in a single noodle type, for instance. The wide, linguine-like strands inside the spicy sesame dish — otherwise salad-like with cashews, raw spinach leaves and apples sliced long and rectangular — are one of just two noodle styles on which he's focused his menu, after first opening with four types in August 2012.
By 2013, Uncle was named among 5280's Best New Restaurants and had earned Westword editor's picks as Best New Restaurant and Best Noodle Bar.
I should clarify that when we're talking noodles, we aren't talking about your sad college or backpacking ramen, but the real stuff — the famed wheat-thread tangles made legendary in contemporary cuisine by celeb chef David Chang at New York's Momofuku.
Lee, 33, who came out of three years at Chipotle to launch Uncle, sans culinary degree, unabashedly modeled his restaurant off Chang's, having visited and learned that it "resonated with me very much." He continues, "I didn't open [Uncle] because I thought it was trendy, but because this is the type of place in Denver that I'd want to go."
Uncle buys noodles from Los Angeles' Sun Noodle, same as Chang. It's the type of specialized, renowned-in-chef-circles type of vendor that as a complimentary service, dispatched a representative to consult on the precision of noodle choice (from a wide selection), broth-to-noodle ratios and other all-important factors. Bones, Denver's other notable ramen spot, also buys from Sun; owner Frank Bonanno originally pointed Lee in that direction via Sushi Den friends.
For the record, Lee views Uncle as a very different ramen shop, calling his predecessor "more of a French restaurant in Asian clothing," but conceding that Bones' lobster ramen "is delicious."
At Uncle, Lee says, he concentrates on authentic flavors versus fusion, meaning it took his crew nearly two months of experimentation to finalize a flavor base for its kimchi ramen ($14) alone, one of six ramen on the menu. The kimchi gets no small infusion of spicy Korean chili paste into the molten, sesame seed-and-scallion-flecked broth, from which an egg, bean sprouts and pork bits are plucked amid the slender, round noodles. Mine transported me back to many mouth-sears in Seoul.
Aside from the noodles, the only other items not made in-house are the steamed buns that've become wildly popular as the puffy Pac-Man-like embracers of pork belly. Lee's crew used to make them, but when his tiny open kitchen got too busy, he began buying from a Chinese friend who executes his recipe.
Though the pork's sourced from the same Brush, Colo., farm patronized by nearby charcuterie leader Old Major, and served with a cucumber's crunch and hoisin's tart tang, it was our least favorite of a current trio (each $7). Even Lee acknowledges that "every ramen shop has to have pork belly steamed buns — they're a necessity, but becoming boring."
Hence the drive to place shrimp in a food processor with egg whites and cornstarch, then press the mix into a pan, bake it, and saw off square shrimp cakes that don't fall apart when bitten, accented by pickled red onions and spicy mayo.
But most brilliant of all, and our single favorite flavor between visits, are the fried green tomato buns. Speaking as a boy born minutes away from Alabama's famed Irondale Cafe (i.e. Whistle Stop Cafe), I was shocked to see the Southern touch flow so seamlessly into the Asian realm. Lee, using locally grown tomatoes, pondered the penchant for serving fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese ("the caviar of the South"), and thus designed miso mayo and pimento garnishes as creamy tribute, set off by a whole Thai basil leaf. Totally brilliant.
A talented team
From six small plates, two we sampled have already left the menu: a chicharrón-invoking duck skin salad with a fun sambal ranch ($7), and an elegantly simple Scottish salmon with snow peas ($11) nuanced by ramp butter (a compound butter made with the perennial early spring onion).
Popularity has kept the wonderful Brussels sprouts ($7) around, fried crisp and given a Vietnamese treatment via mildly sweet nuoc cham sauce, peanuts and crispy shallots. Jalapeño rounds and rough-chopped garlic season unctuous bites of the salt and pepper quail ($8).
Since the departure of opening chef Travis Masar, formerly of Aria and a Top Chef competitor last year, chef Todd Somma has co-led Uncle. Each day, says Lee, he and Somma (who came via Fuel Cafe) tinker with new concepts; another hand in the mix, Jared Black, has brought more than a decade of sushi experience to head the menu's four-item sashimi section.
On it, fluke ($10) is flown from Boston and wrapped in kombu (a traditional Japanese curing practice) to derive naturally occurring glutamate for its umami essence, then served as subtle little nuggets lining a long plate garnished in ichimi (ground red chili dust) and a ramp-and-kaffir-lime "pesto." A meatier, notably fresh yellowfin tuna poke ($12) gets classic Hawaiian treatment with soy, sesame oil and chilies, but it's dished creatively with cucumber cuts on a shiso leaf and thin, mandolin-cut taro chips.
Only a single dessert's offered monthly, in our case a trio of airy macarons ($6) by Melissa Yanc, pastry chef and owner of Heirloom Bakeshop. If blindly tasted, I wouldn't have been able to identify the oddly unique black sesame and Thai tea flavors, and the pistachio landed a bit cloying. (Finding French delicacies on Uncle's menu at all hints at an element of hipster-dom that's perhaps unavoidable when the entirety of the dining room is white, 30-something and seemingly content with loud music bouncing off every hard surface.)
The tiny booze list, including quite complementary Asian beers and cool canned sakes, will likely grow a bit soon with a "restructured" kitchen as part of a three-pronged project that'll also see a patio opening and, eventually, long-requested lunch hours.
Lee's also on record as seeking a second space for either a similar eatery, or perhaps a truly authentic yakitori spot, he says, "depending on who's working for me." Such collaborative energy is but one aspect of what's made Uncle excel. That, Chang's spirit, and centuries of culinary practices imbued with modern flair all add up to one damn satisfying dining experience.