With Uncle, Tommy Lee proves he knows how to use the old noodle...and make it new
The week before I arrived in the Mile High City for a spring vacation, Westword named Uncle the area's Best New Restaurant. That propelled Tommy Le's restaurant straight to the top of my tome-like list of must-visit spots that had opened since I moved away from this town nine months ago. I was curious about the place because of its Best of Denver 2013 honor -- restaurants continue to get better and better here, so I imagine picking the number-one spot was harder than ever this year -- but I was also intrigued by the fact that Uncle is Denver's first real entrant in the ramen noodle shop category, a category that I've explored relentlessly since my first taste of real ramen at New York City's famous Japanese import Ippuddo five years ago.
Mark Manger A look at Uncle, Denver's Best New Restaurant.
Since then, I've eaten my way through countless restaurants dedicated to the stuff, slurping up innumerable bowls of what has become my undisputed desert-island food. I love versions of the dish that range from traditional tonkotsu, in all of its pork-bone broth glory, to grainy miso spiked with upper-lip-sweat-inducing hot peppers and an intense rush of ginger to broth-less mazemen done in a carbonara style with pancetta and egg.
Mark Manger Spicy chicken ramen at Uncle.
When I lived here, I bemoaned the lack of a ramenya -- traditional or otherwise -- and while I tried hard to content myself with the decent but not stellar bowls found in precious few spots along the Front Range, I considered the countless ramen shops that dot the neighborhoods of New York City to be a significant pro in my decision to move there.
Because Denver was slow to jump on the ramen bandwagon -- to give you some idea of how slow, consider the fact that the New York Times just ran a story about how izakayas are the next frontier in Japanese dining now that the ramen craze is reaching saturation point -- it was inevitable that its first real stab at noodle glory would come with an onslaught of comparisons to what came before it.
Tommy Lee tried to control the predictable accusations of idea-stealing by naming his muse, the venerable Momofuku Noodle Bar, early. Good move, since he opted to build out his narrow restaurant with blonde wood paneling, giving the place the distinct look and feel of the East Village joint. (That a number of ramenyas in New York and beyond feature this exact same aesthetic is probably worth noting, too, but perhaps those aren't as frequently visited as David Chang's restaurant.) There's a wait list and a packed house every night of the week at Uncle, which only adds to the feeling of mimicry in the ambience -- though the 45 minutes I nursed a beer next door at Highland Tap while waiting for a counter stool felt like a mere pregnant conversational pause when compared with the two and a half hours I've eagerly accepted at some of the most popular ramen spots in the Big Apple.
The menu also looks similar: from the categories to the descriptions to the sans-serif typeface. Add a culinary focus on less traditional ramen, and Momofuku definitely deserved an anticipatory nod of gratitude. But Lee took it a step further by wholeheartedly embracing the link when he told various publications that a pilgrimage to Noodle Bar made him realize he could do that in Denver (leaving exactly what "that" was somewhat vague); Uncle's website even prominently features a review that describes Lee's vision as a single-minded focus on replicating Chang's East Village spot in Lower Highland.
In this era of Google, obsessive food blogging and frequent air travel, it's probably best to cite your restaurant inspiration sources as soon as you file your liquor-license application. If you don't, you run the risk of some snarky writer completely blowing past whatever is going on in the kitchen in favor of calling you out for not giving credit where credit is due (and if a writer doesn't do that, you can bet that a commenter will pick up the slack).
But Lee did himself a bit of a disservice by putting so much up-front emphasis on that one ramen joint as a catalyst for his own spot. Persistent comparison followed, and as a result, every time I've heard Uncle mentioned since it opened, it's been compared to Momofuku, often with a backhanded insult that acknowledges Uncle as good for Denver ramen, but inherently inferior because it's a cover band for the New York City original: fun, believable-ish, but really only suitable because the real thing is unattainable. (Too expensive! Too far away! And probably already booked!).
I'd forgotten that this kind of comparison is an issue here in Denver. A restaurateur travels to a coastal city and gets an idea for a restaurant he or she would like to open here, and we call it a rip-off. But why does acknowledging inspiration from another source automatically make something inferior? David Chang is undisputedly one of the most original and groundbreaking chefs of this generation, but even he leans on tried-and-true culinary techniques and traditions. New York City chefs blatantly borrow from each other and their compatriots in other cities all the time. That's why there were shishito peppers on almost every single menu in the city last summer.