The corner at East Bayaud Avenue and South Pennsylvania Street in Washington Park West is buzzing these days: Beloved institution Carmine’s on Penn continues to draw regulars, and the year-old second location of Rise & Shine Biscuit Kitchen & Cafe lures Denverites with homey breakfast and lunch fare. Across Pennsylvania, American Grind is grinding along towards its anticipated end-of-month opening, and—drumroll, please!—just this week, Tommy Lee’s second location of Uncle opened its doors there.
From the inside, Uncle 2.0 is new, indeed: Designed by Denver architect Kevin Nguyen (Regular Architecture), the L-shaped restaurant is wide, open, and filled with natural light—a contrast to its LoHi location’s darker, shoebox-size space—thanks to floor-to-ceiling sliding windows. Blonde wood chairs line the long ramen counter, offset by dining tables that wrap around the space; there’s room for 80 people, and the square footage is double that of the LoHi restaurant. Better yet: There’s a full bar with six seats where you can watch the pro bar team, led by Jordan Thomas, stir, shake, and pour an all-new menu of cocktails, wines (think: off-dry Rieslings) that match the chile-centric food, and a unique and hard-to-replicate sake list curated by general manager (and rad sake nerd) Cecilia Jones.
Favorite Uncle food items (and a resistance to reservations) have migrated to the new restaurant—yes, that includes the cold tofu, spicy chicken ramen, and every steamed bun on the LoHi menu—but Lee and his team have also created a dozen new dishes, many inspired by Thai cuisine, that Denverites should (and most likely will) patiently wait in line to try.
Perfect for a steamy summer night in Denver: Uncle’s new draft gin-and-tonic, made with lemongrass-infused house tonic syrup and Plymouth gin, along with Lee’s take on shrimp cocktail, in which the sweet, tail-on crustaceans, served cold, are marinated in what the kitchen crew calls “spicy bomb” (roasted chiles, miso, chile oil), then charred, chilled, and served with a Thai-style nam prik dipping sauce.
Or perhaps wings are more your kind of finger food? If so, Uncle in Wash Park West has a beautiful dish featuring tender little pieces of grilled quail inspired by “larb,” a chopped meat salad of sorts popular in Laos and Thailand. To replicate the tangy-spicy-savory flavors of the salad, Lee and his team marinate the quail in fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and tamarind; grill it; then toss it in an aromatic dressing made from house chile jam, more of the marinade ingredients, dried Thai chiles, shallots, fresh herbs, and toasted rice powder. It’s an umami-bomb of a dish that we could eat every day.
Another delicious surprise are Uncle’s delicately fried hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, which, when dunked into the restaurant’s sweet chile sauce, are going to ruin you on other fried snacks for weeks. A new-fangled old fashioned, made with Hop Alley’s exclusive barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon, alpine Braulio, and banana liqueur, is the perfect pairing. (It really, truly is.)
The Wash Park West Uncle menu also sports an heirloom California rice section, based on the aromatic, medium-grained Koda Farms rice that Lee (and anyone else who’s tried it) loves; you’ll find that rice steamed and served alongside a range of spectacular curries, from a Penang-style short rib version (creamy with peanuts and wild lime leaves) to a sausage-eggplant-shrimp jungle curry to a fresh green curry with meaty mussels.
Jones’ rare-for-Denver sakes are intended to offset the chile funk and heat of those curries, so put yourself in her hands for pairing suggestions. On the affordable side of the spectrum, the fresh, juicy canned Kikusui Funaguchi shinmai ($16 for 200 mL) is rich with tropical fruit notes that plays particularly well with the red coconut vegetable curry. Or, you can splurge for an exquisite bottle of unpasteurized, undiluted Born Muroka Namagenshu special junmai daiginjo ($99 for 720 mL), if lush sake that tastes like a creamsicle is more your thing.
There are also additions to Uncle’s ramen offerings: a Tokyo-style shoyu soup sporting springy egg noodles, a silky chicken and fish broth, pork belly, half a marinated soft-boiled egg, and a drizzle of rendered chicken fat, called schmaltz. Yep, schmaltz. Brothless ramen (or “mazeman,” which translates to “mixed noodles”) take two forms in Wash Park West: one with spicy miso pork, cabbage, corn, and scallions and the other centered around vegetables (currently buna-shimeji mushrooms, snap peas, radish, and serrano chile) that is seasoned with everything bagel spice mix. ‘Cause that’s just how Uncle does it.
95 S. Pennsylvania St., 720-638-1859. Monday through Saturday, from 5 to 10 p.m.