Eat & Drink

Heartbreaker

The rise and fall of LoHi’s Uncle.

July 2013

Uncle
2215 W. 32nd Ave.
303-433-3263
uncledenver.tumblr.com

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2 Stars

THE DRAW
The petite dining room and deftly executed East-meets-West menu offer a homegrown expression of
the national ramen trend.
THE DRAWBACK
Service has slipped from informal to incompetent.
DON’T MISS
Canned sake, sesame pancakes, shrimp buns, chile mazemen, spicy chicken ramen, bibimbap
DETAILS
Small plates and buns, $3 to $14; noodle and rice bowls, $13 to $15. Street parking. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Reservations not taken.

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The night I fell for Uncle, the almost-one-year-old noodle shop in LoHi, I fell hard. My chopsticks tangled with delicate noodles and Manila clams. I sipped long-simmered broth from brimming spoons. I devoured sesame pancakes folded over crispy duck tendrils like tacos. I ordered a whiskey cocktail with lemon-honey foam from a concise list that included the difficult-to-find Echigo Stout and canned honjozo sake. I took in the energetic, generationally diverse crowd of neighbors and destination diners. That evening, tucked inside the tiny, wooden space, was practically flawless. Uncle—and owner Tommy Lee’s high-voltage riffs on Eastern flavors dashed with Western playfulness—swept me up and left me smitten.

One of the most impressive elements that first evening was the restaurant’s perfect union of laid-back yet informed service. Servers—clad in T-shirts, jeans, and, occasionally, almost-backwards baseball caps—didn’t include a have-you-been-here-before shtick. Nor did they recite a monologue about Lee’s Chinese-American origins and the time he’s spent in Hong Kong. The staff either assumed I knew how to slurp my noodles or entrusted that I would ask.

I went home and proclaimed my love for Uncle to anyone who would listen. In recent weeks, I’d dined in Portland, New York City, and New Orleans—and Uncle was among my favorite experiences. I told one friend that it reminded me of the decade I spent living and dining in Manhattan. And there was a reason: When Lee, a Denver native who grew up eating his family’s recipe for mi fen (thin rice noodles), opened Uncle last August, he was quick to admit that he was inspired by David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. I first ate at that now-iconic restaurant in the East Village in 2004, when the young ramen-ya (ramen shop) was serving mushy noodles alongside bowl after bowl of promising ones. Uncle brought back fond memories—just as the restaurant made its own indelible impression.

But subsequent visits hinted that Uncle wasn’t the seamless operation I’d fallen for. The problems were myriad, if occasional:  One visit, noodles arrived gummy. The next, cucumbers were too thin to impart any crunch. Another evening, the po’ boy–like shrimp buns—stuffed with succulent fish cakes, snappy pickled red onions, julienned romaine, and spicy mayonnaise—stuck to my teeth. Even so, in every meal I could taste the constant tinkering. Mistakes were fixed by the next visit, and the kitchen became more consistent with each passing month. It was clear Uncle was working to get the menu right. 

Far more concerning was Uncle’s service. I had trouble getting a cocktail during a one-hour wait (the restaurant does not accept reservations). At the end of meals, the bill was presented before we were asked about dessert. Orders—never written down—were wrong, late, or entirely forgotten. But even with those shortcomings, I was so mesmerized by the tender beef tongue, the almost-creamy tahini-spiked ramen, the fat-heat balance of the chile mazemen bowl, and even a scattering of curried peanuts, that I found myself pardoning the deficiencies. I reasoned (or, perhaps more accurately, made excuses to justify my initial infatuation): “They’re slammed,” or, “She’s having an off night,” or, “It’s noisy and difficult for him to hear.”
But any amount of rationalization didn’t matter. By my fourth visit, Uncle forced me to admit that the perennially packed restaurant had an unforgivable flaw: rushed, pompous, and inaccurate service.

One server offered a taste of a lesser-known Valdiguié wine but left midswirl. The host, sprinting to the front of the restaurant, paused only long enough to toss our first dish at us—leaving it spinning like a top on the table. A server delivered the next item with a cordless phone pressed against his shoulder. A busser removed starters we hadn’t finished eating. When my dinner guest asked about the spicy chicken ramen he’d been served instead of the rice noodles with chicken confit he’d ordered, the response was, “Sorry, bro. Next time.” No offer to correct the mistake, no suggestion that the dish would be removed from the bill, no gratis dessert—just a “better luck next time” attitude. Granted, the entrée was half gone by the time we were able to mention it—but there I go making excuses again.

I understand that ramen-yas in Tokyo celebrate the noodle, not the service. I realize that as top chefs open more approachable concepts, we sometimes order house-raised Mangalitsa from a counter instead of at a formal place setting with an imported tablecloth. I know that Lee recently lost his opening sous chef, presumably planting the owner in the back of the house more often than the front. I recognize that Uncle has seen a surge of business on the heels of glowing reviews and relentless awards, including a notch on this magazine’s Best New Restaurants list in March. But along the way, Uncle’s service has slipped from informal to incompetent. A few fixes—limiting the host’s duties to collecting names and delivering cocktails; repeating orders and writing them down; hiring more hands to refill water glasses, clear (empty) plates, and give the servers the minutes they need to properly present a dish—would go a long way in restoring my faith in Uncle.

Will I dine here again? Absolutely. Uncle’s bold and tangled flavors are too enticing to pass up. As for the service, I’m hopeful, but it’s time to stop making excuses.