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When Uncle‘s Tommy Lee opens Hop Alley in late November, he’ll do more than launch a second restaurant—he’ll pay tribute to Denver’s long-lost Chinatown. According to Lee’s research, back in the 1860s and ’70s, a community of up to 2,000 Chinese (many of whom had come to work on the railroads) lived in what is now LoDo. Over time, that neighborhood came to be known as Hop Alley. When Lee was concepting his restaurant and brainstorming names (for a long time the project was known as Bar Uncle), he landed on Hop Alley.
Located at 35th and Larimer streets, Lee’s restaurant sits outside what would have been Hop Alley’s boundaries. All the same, Lee has dug up some serendipitous history about the building: In the 1950s it was a soy sauce factory, and later on the building’s owner used the space as a commissary kitchen for Asian foods. “He was making wonton wrappers and growing bean sprouts in the basement,” Lee says. “It’s like this was meant to be a Chinese restaurant at some point.”
Hop Alley is based on the traditional Chinese restaurant with family-style and shared plates. “It’ll be a mix of familiar, unfamiliar, and new,” Lee says. “It’s taking your traditional format of a Chinese meal and putting some spins on it.” One such twist is having a wood-fired grill. That decision came after Lee had the grilled octopus at Acorn. “It tasted like it had come out of a wok—it had a charred bitterness to it. And I thought, ‘what if we get a wood-fired grill.’”
Unlike Uncle, there will be no counter seating, and Hop Alley will have a full bar area. Lee is currently mulling over whether or not to take reservations for the 48-seat space. No matter the decision, Hop Alley is bound to be packed with fans anxious to try out Lee’s take on “Chinatown.”