On Wednesday, July 17 acclaimed Denver chef Tommy Lee opened the doors of the second iteration of his hugely popular LoHi ramen staple, Uncle. The new restaurant — nestled between the Baker and Wash Park neighborhoods — is not simply a carbon copy of the original. Instead, Lee has taken much of what he’s learned in the nearly seven years since he first opened the first location, transferring that knowledge to a clean slate. While the latest joint isn’t necessarily a direct celebration of his time spent in the limelight, the decision to open a new ramen joint in the peak of summer may not have been lightly considered — Uncle number one celebrates its seventh birthday in August.
Uncle originally opened as a pan-Asian noodle house. “I wanted to open a restaurant that Denver didn’t have at the time,” said Lee. The decision to focus on ramen only came after around six months of toying with the menu. Lee realized that the ramen was much more popular than the rest of the options and he was “sick of keeping rice noodles in the back of the car.”
The limited space forced customers to cram into the 50-seat closet of a noodle house, yielding long waits that further solidified the place’s escalating aplomb. The new spot is no less cool — in fact, the many improvements make the new location even more attractive. The food’s success can clearly shine outside the trappings of hype.
The interior is much more spacious — stretching the 80 available seats onto a breathable, open floorplan. While the atmosphere is equally vibrant, the controlled chaos that gave the original some of its charm is noticeably absent. While customers are sure to expect some kind of wait as ramen-season shifts into full swing, the larger space seems like a natural move for a concept that has outgrown its initial borders. “We can only grow organically,” said Lee, both of the concept’s natural progression and his decision to not include investors at this time.
Most of the best items that lead to the prototype’s success can also be found here, but up to half of the menu is new. Appetizer wise only the chilled tofu ($5) — with ginger, soy vinaigrette and wakame — appears at both locations. Of the five new starters the charred shrimp cocktail ($19) — jumbo shrimp in a spicy pepper marinade that are flame-grilled then refrigerated, then served with sweet chili sauce — shine with their intelligent interplay of hot flavor and cool temperature. Grilled quail, southern fried mushrooms, celery salad and lamb ribs are also available to start the meal. Even the food choices have a certain calmness — an apparent invitation to sit back and relax — that the original menu seemed to intentionally avoid.
An entirely new section — Heirloom California Rice — has been added with a current focus on curries. While the section is entirely devoted to sophisticated interpretations of Thai variations, Lee wanted to title it in hopes of leaving the rice the only necessary constant — with Katsu or other rice-bowls to be added and subtracted at the chef’s discretion. The rice comes from Koda Farms, a family company in California who have been producing the product for three generations since the founder immigrated from Japan. The place boasts its own seed nursery and controls every aspect of production. The short rib Penang ($23) is thick cuts of succulent short rib doused in red coconut curry, peanuts, Thai basil and Kaffir lime. Placed over the bright, sticky rice the dish can easily be split between two as an appetizer or enjoyed alone.
Ramen-wise the spicy chicken and duck that made Uncle famous are available, with three new bowls joining the menu. The Jiro ($15) is a thick chicken and bonito broth, pork belly, cabbage, bean sprouts spicy garlic and ajitama egg. The broth is nicely punctuated by the crisp cabbage and the pork belly does not overlap with the fatty broth. On the lighter side, the Tokyo Shoyu ($14.50) combines a light chicken and fish broth, pork belly, arugula, scallion and ajitama egg for a daintier but equally punchy result.
Uncle’s food has always spoken for itself. With any luck, the new space will only help to bring the product to a larger audience who, up until this point, may have been scared off by the long waits and growing pains that can come with unexpected success.
The new Uncle is located at 95 South Pennsylvania St. It is open Monday – Saturday 5 – 10 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.