Eat & Drink

The Occidental Tourist

The insider’s guide to Ace Eat Serve in Uptown.
May 2013

The Draw
An energetic Uptown restaurant/bar/ping-pong palace perfect for groups seeking an inexpensive and entertaining night out.

The Drawback
Some of the dishes lack balance (oversalted, underseasoned), and getting a table (both for dining and pong) on busy nights requires patience.

Don’t Miss
Lo Pan’s Ruin and Mission Orange cocktails, spicy pork ramen, crispy beef, Chinese pork spareribs, short rib bao bun

Price
$ (Average price per entrée: $10)

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Welcome to Ace Eat Serve. Thank you for joining us on tonight’s tour of this bustling Uptown restaurant. Before we get started, how many of you have heard of Ace? Most of you?! Well, I’m not surprised. Denver’s first Pan-Asian ping-pong bar and restaurant has been getting a lot of buzz.

Some background: Ace is the latest creation by the team that brought you Steuben’s (next door) and Vesta Dipping Grill downtown. As you’ll see, Ace offers the same sense of playfulness as those other restaurants, the same nothing-quite-like-it energy.

Let’s step inside. Huge, isn’t it? High ceilings. Big windows. Open rooms. Massive patio. Yes, Ace is friendly and inviting. Notice the kitschy-cool decor—the neon Cut Rate Liquors sign on the wall; the shipping container under the chef’s counter; the old Mission Orange soda dispenser on the bar top. After we’re done, you’ll want to try one of Ace’s Mission Orange highballs, made with bubbly soda from that machine, Angostura bitters, and the Korean spirit known as soju.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of soju? There are many spirits on Ace’s menu you may not recognize, including Mekhong, a whiskey/rum crossover from Thailand; Yamazaki, a 12-year whiskey from Japan; and an impressive lineup of sakes and Asian beer. Just sitting and sipping in the bar will give you a good sense of Ace’s intent: to introduce diners to Asian flavors they might not be familiar with, while also making sure they have an all-American good time.

Let’s move to the ping-pong room—kind of looks like an urban rec center, doesn’t it? Many guests have wondered, “Why ping-pong?” You could make the argument that table tennis, being immensely popular in China, fits Ace’s Asian theme. But the real reason the owners chose the concept is they wanted to capitalize on the pong trend, which is big in cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

OK, now: I suspect you’ve stopped in here for food as well, so let’s step into the main dining room. Brandon Biederman is the executive chef, and he’s put together a menu consisting of a wide assortment of Asian dishes. Noodles from Japan. Dim sum from China. Soups from Thailand. Many items on the menu may look familiar, but don’t expect the same shumai or red curry you find at your favorite strip-mall ethnic spot. As Biederman says, “To do something truly authentic would be a stretch. I mean, I’m not from Asia. I’m from the south side of Chicago.”

What Biederman has done is taken a sampling of the Asian dishes he and his team members liked most, stateside and internationally, and put them together in a way that allows you to be as routine—or adventurous—as you want to be. On the more familiar side are noodle bowls like the spicy pork ramen, a soupy blend of ground pork, wheat ramen, crunchy baby corn, and hot red chiles. The soup base, made with meat stock, tamari, and dried Thai bird chiles, is so well balanced you’d be hard-pressed to find a more comforting comfort food.

Glazed pork spareribs and crispy beef are two of the other recognizable dishes. The pork, a stacked crosshatch of pink, meaty ribs, is sticky, sweet, and tender in precisely the right proportions. If you want some added heat, dip the ribs into the accompanying hot yellow mustard. The crispy beef, made from tender strips of flank steak flash-fried and tossed in a mixture of honey, tamari, ginger, and garlic, is more tame but equally satisfying. The crispy outer layer earns bonus points for texture.

Because part of the fun at Ace is trying things you may not have had before, sample the bao buns—sweet, squishy buns that have been stuffed with braised meats. Order them filled with short rib—this beef has been marinated overnight in Asian pears, sesame oil, sesame seeds, green onion, and chile paste, then braised, shredded, and brushed with hoisin sauce. Served with hot-sour kimchi and a side of pickled mustard seeds, the buns are seductive enough that you’ll immediately order another round for the table. (I have noticed, however, that the quality of the buns varies—sometimes they’re pillowy; other times they fall apart.) You might also try the banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich made from a crispy French baguette spread with pâté and stacked with pickled vegetables and either chicken, pork belly, short rib, or char siu pork. This is no dainty sandwich, and like the rest of the menu, it’s best to share.

As your guide, I have to be honest: Not every dish is worthy of a Facebook brag. The red curry beef is disappointing. The strips of flank steak are tender, but they drown in  a curry made overly salty from too much shrimp paste. The same is true of the chow fun, a noodle dish that, oddly, lacks many of the wide rice noodles most of us have come to expect (at least, it did the night I ordered it). Folks, I can adjust to the lack of noodles, but I can’t abide the cloying oyster sauce I tasted for hours after dinner.

A couple more gripes: While some of the dishes are heavy-handed, others suffer from a light touch. The papaya salad—often a crunchy sweet-tart blend of green papaya, Thai chiles, and peanuts—is mystifying in its blandness. The kale salad and chicken-and-basil dumpling were similarly lifeless and in need of lemon, soy…something.

Here’s my take: Because Biederman fills the executive chef shoes at both Ace and Steuben’s, the problems are likely caused by a lack of kitchen oversight. But don’t let the occasional misstep deter you from coming back. I mean, look around—there’s life and vibrancy here. To improve your odds of ordering something great, ask your servers for input. The enthusiastic waitstaff has been trained to put guests at ease.

We’ve come to the end of our tour, but before I let you go: Ace is ideal for budget-minded guests. Twenty bucks will get you a huge, steaming bowl of noodles and a cocktail. Sixty bucks will cover three filling small plates, two cocktails, and a too-big-to-finish slice of pineapple upside-down cake. Plus, there’s ping-pong before and after dinner.

Before we head out, one final thought: Americans often travel to Asia because it’s stimulating, inexpensive, and unlike anything they’re used to. For those very same reasons, Denver residents will likely come to Ace—in droves.