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Jungle curry with lobster at Uncle 2.0. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

Restaurant Review: Is the New Uncle Worth the Wait?

Tommy Lee brings Thai-style curries and his excellent ramen to the Speer neighborhood.

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Uncle

3 Stars

The Draw:
A larger location with an expanded menu; top-notch ramen.
The Drawback:
No dedicated bar area for waiting.
Noise Level:
Moderate.
Don’t Miss:
Celery salad, grilled quail, mussel and jungle curries, any ramen.

On a busy Friday night, few Denver restaurant kitchens run at the hyper-balletic pace of the big, shiny, six-month-old kitchen at the new Uncle in the Speer neighborhood. Recently, I counted 17 cooks and other staff, all abuzz and gracefully in sync, plunging baskets of noodles into water, packing white bao buns into steam baskets like Michelin men into tiny saunas, and building pyramids of grilled shrimp on beds of crispy rice. It’s a cheerful show. A culinary crew in good form knows it’s in good form, and the camaraderie at Uncle 2.0 reminded me of a Broadway musical troupe with a hit on its hands.

The menu at this second Uncle is more ambitious than that of the first-born, smaller Highland shop. It remains ramen-centric, but there’s an expanded list of “mazemen” (brothless ramen), more small plates, and several Thai-style, entrée-size curries. I was a little leery: Why branch out when ramen is already notoriously difficult to master? Was it to push entrée prices past LoHi’s $17 mark to support the huge Speer brigade de cuisine? Perhaps—Uncle 2.0 is even less of a bargain than the original—but after tasting most of the menu, I am glad for the additions, several of which are more boldly conceived than I have come to expect from Denver restaurants doing the Pan-Asian thing.

There is an excellent grilled quail salad, for example, that riffs off Laotian larb without backing away from the raw, textural intensity—gritty rice powder, juicy ground meat, lots of crunchy fresh herb leaves and stems—that is the essence of that dish. Six pieces of chile-jam-slathered grilled quail nest beneath a bramble of cilantro, mint, toasted rice powder, raw shallot, lemongrass, and chiles; the whole dish sports plenty of funk and zing from fish sauce and lime.

When my lobster jungle curry arrived, I was encouraged to see a stem of green peppercorns perched atop, as one might see in Thailand. The Uncle version is not so incendiary as what you will eat there, but its flavor was similarly peppery, viny, and green. The lobster didn’t add much, but I loved the delicious bits of garlicky sausage, made aromatic with makrut lime leaves; chunks of Japanese eggplant and turnip amplified the earthy character. I also liked the mussel curry, whose coconut-milk-based broth was so richly steeped with lime leaves that its perfume deliciously defined the dish.

Crab bao, celery salad, and sake at Uncle. Photo by Sarah Boyum

So, even if you eschew ramen, you can have a very good meal at the new Uncle. The little steamed buns from the original restaurant are there, too. They come two to a plate, stuffed with pork belly, hoisin, and cucumber (fine, but nothing special); fried soft-shell crab with green papaya slaw and a cilantro nam prik (delicious); or crispy, succulent eggplant with mustard seeds, miso mayo, and cabbage (my favorite).

One particular appetizer ventures into fusion whimsy of the best sort: the celery salad with sour cream, preserved lemon, dried shrimp (like bits of sweet seafood jerky), house-made XO sauce, and a storm of fresh mint. It’s a lively start to a meal, though scant in size for $10. Indeed, a few dishes felt a bit stingy, especially that lobster curry (at $29) and the short rib curry (at $25), although the latter is very good if you like a thick, umami-rich, meaty iteration.

But now it’s time to talk about the ramen. And let me stipulate that I wrote this review in Tokyo (which is perhaps unfair, since the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever eaten have rightly been in that city).

The first thing about ramen is that it’s preferable to eat it alone at a counter in a cramped shop, in that state of devotion celebrated in the greatest food movie of all time, Tampopo. You receive your bowl directly from one of the cooks. You breathe in the steam and size up the ingredients by dipping and poking and turning the elements with your chopsticks. Then, you’re off, alternating between spoon and chopsticks and eating with furious slurping noises that would convince everyone in Denver that you are a lunatic.

The second thing is that the wheat noodles—kinked or straight, depending on the chef’s inclination—are important, but the broth is more foundationally critical. That’s true along the ramen spectrum, from very light broths (the most delicate versions are rarely seen in America) to full-on tonkotsu flavor bombs, which get their lip-coating richness from hours of vigorous pork bone boiling. Great broth is the soul of the bowl.

Chef-owner Tommy Lee. Photo by Sarah Boyum

The point is that eating proper ramen is an experience, somewhat diminished in a large, modern restaurant in which the bowls are delivered by waiters rather than cooks. Still, I enjoy perching at the counter at Uncle 2.0, and I am impressed by what I ate there, across several styles of ramen.

Uncle’s broths are well made and differentiated. The shoyu style (a clear, soy-based concoction) in the duck and Tokyo ramens is subtle and deep; the chicken and fish broth of the Jiro-style ramen, flavored with bonito, is a notch more rich; and sesame paste in the restaurant’s famous spicy chicken ramen makes for a good, nutty version, similar to one I just ate in Tokyo, though less intensely seasoned with mouth-numbing sansho pepper. The tsukemen broth, meanwhile, intended for dipping, is loaded with pork-bone collagen, and if it’s not as gravy-thick as what I’ve had at the famous Fuunji shop in Japan, I also didn’t feel like I’d drunk a bowl of crown roast drippings by the end.

Uncle’s noodles are chewy and firm, as they should be, and the supporting cast of ingredients is good: Chicken is cut from the thigh for flavor, while duck is intensified by confit prep. “Ajitama” (seasoned eggs) have a properly custardlike consistency.

As for quibbles, I have but two: The pork belly in the Jiro and tsukemen ramens was bland and flabby. And the Jiro bowl wimped out completely. That style applies the more-is-more ethic to ramen, super-sizing the bowl for starving students and drunk salarymen. Uncle’s version was dainty by comparison.

Uncle is a friendly joint. Service was generally attentive and quick, wired to the kitchen’s energy. Cocktails are complicated (lime, shochu, cashew, and sesame in a mai tai?), yet of the four I sampled, none were memorable. I prefer the sake selection; try the Kikusui Funaguchi Kunko Black, which comes in a cute can but is a rich sake that’s not too sweet. Or order beer, especially the Echigo Koshihikari rice ale, a fizzy brew with more depth than Coors that vanishes on the palate in the Japanese style, never fighting with the food.

My final piece of advice for enjoying a dinner at Uncle 2.0 is to have a strategy to get in—or a lot of patience. Uncle takes no reservations, and during the 6 p.m. ramen rush, that can mean a considerable wait; four of us cooled our heels for more than an hour one night. It left us wishing Uncle’s ample new space included a bigger bar area. At present, you either sit in the nondescript foyer or go to the burger joint, American Grind, next door to drink a beer and watch for a text message. Uncle’s food is worth it, but it’s so much nicer when you’re escorted directly to the counter. My advice: Go when the restaurant is less crowded, at 8 or 8:30 p.m. The crew will be just as energized and happy to serve.

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