Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Uncle owner Tommy Lee [Photo: Adam Larkey]
One year ago, the kitchen at Tommy Lee's LoHi noodle shop, Uncle, opened its doors dishing out Momofuku-esk dishes. Lee opened his restaurant with less direction than one would think and did not quite anticipate it would evolve into the institution-like ramen shop it is today - when Uncle opened, there was only one ramen dish on the menu. It did not take long for the town to rumble about the obvious similarities to New York City's Momofuku. Lee never denied the similarities but he just doesn't think it matters. It is about the quality of the food served and the vibe created by the friendly and laid-back staff. Eater sat at the wooden bar with Lee and discussed one year of business, 5280 Magazine's recent tough review, past chefs heading to TV, and more.
Let's start with what was first the talk of the town: Momofuku. What did you think of all that hype? I guess when I started out I didn't think it would be a big deal just because it's not a new idea. Basically after Momofuku, which was eight or nine years ago, I feel the ramen and bun concept became a genre so every city has a ramen and bun place now.
It was more about how the space looked. From my perspective, I was so used to that concept that it didn't seem to matter. I didn't have a lot of money to pay an interior designer to really design the space for me, so most of it was done on my own. It fits the aesthetic of a ramen shop obviously. Most ramen shops are a lot of wood, a counter space, and an open kitchen. I think the reference obviously helped get us a lot of press and mentions. I guess I didn't think about it that way when I was opening it, I was just trying to start serving food.
Why did you choose this location and space? When I was thinking about a restaurant , I wanted it to be here in this neighborhood because of all the other restaurants developing. This is a younger neighborhood and was one of my top two areas. I almost signed a lease on Broadway but this one was obviously a better fit for us. When we took over the space, it was empty. It was nothing. The plumbing had to be redone, the electrical, the HVAC system. Basically, we just had to gut it to where it could become a restaurant.
Starting the place from nothing to now having your one-year anniversary, how does that feel? It feels like three years. I never expected us to be this busy and this crazy, so it's a big deal for us. It would be the same for any restaurant. It has come pretty quickly but you know it's been pretty wild.
Can you think of that first moment when you realized you guys had made it and had a successful restaurant? Not really. I still think we are going to go out of business. That's just how I am. I am very pessimistic and I am constantly reminded that it could all end tomorrow. It could be that nobody shows up tomorrow. But I think the first Westword review we got from Gretchen Kurtz helped a lot- she focused more on the ramen itself. When I opened, I didn't really have the intention of being a ramen shop specifically. Our opening night we actually only had one ramen on the menu. But after that review, I kind of got the validation I needed to go in a certain direction.
Why did you shy away from ramen in the beginning? Just knowing a lot about ramen, reading a lot about it, and learning a lot about it, I knew how difficult it was. That is why I never sought out to be a ramen shop. I didn't think I'd be able to do it very well and I didn't think I would be able to get good noodles. I knew how long it took to make the soup. It is seemingly simple but it is incredibly complex. If you know ramen shops elsewhere, most ramen shops just do one type of ramen and that's it with, maybe with slight variations based on spice or whatever. For us, to do multiple styles is pretty difficult. We've worked within our confines to make it happen and still make all of them very good.
How did the restaurant evolve to become the Uncle we know today?It's funny even for us to see the evolution. When we give gift certificates to people, we usually staple a menu to them. So, when people bring them in attached to a menu from the beginning, it's funny, I'll be like oh yeah we used to do that. The core of the menu we've probably worked the hardest on to try to make it the best stuff we can do and keep it the most consistent. Then the other sections we change based on seasonality or based just on whim. We are very collaborative. Someone might just throw out an idea and we'll work on it and see if it works for us. We are also limited a lot by space and time. We don't have a huge kitchen, so everything has to be cooked fairly quickly and obviously we don't have the best equipment. Things have to be pretty simple.
Is there a favorite memory that comes to mind during your first year? I think once we started getting a lot of press, but I don't know if this was a good memory or a bad memory. Once we started getting a lot of press, on Saturdays we'd have a line of about 20 people waiting outside at like 4:30. It got kind of crazy. But it was really cool, of course. I never thought that this place would have an effect on dinners in the city. I felt what we were doing was pretty obscure, so to have people line up waiting was pretty cool. It's a good and a bad memory because we would just be crazy busy open to close it was really hectic and stressful, but also a lot of fun.
If you could do one thing over what would it be? I would have liked to concentrate on being a ramen shop from the beginning. Our kitchen is not really set up for it so that's kind of a struggle to adjust to that new dimension now. I think that's the biggest thing. For a ramen shop, we would have laid the restaurant out differently.
5280 Magazine just gave Uncle a review that really focused the on staff. How did you take that? I think it was a fair review. For me, I am the type of person where the food is number one. As long as you bring me my food and it's hot, it's fine. I understand that people come to restaurants for different reasons. I know that most customers are viewing us as a full on restaurant - this whole dining experience. For me, it is not like that. You come here, you get ramen, and you go. But we obviously have the customers that come in and are spending two hours here and are not looking for the same experience that we are trying to give them. The thing that we went over with the staff afterwards is you have to make sure you take care of everybody. If she [restaurant critic Stacey Brugeman] had that experience, it's not like she was the only person. I think it is easy for restaurants to get sloppy after a certain period of time. You know you get in the flow of the day-to-day grind, you get comfortable, and you forget about what you are actually trying to do. It was a good kick in the butt and in the end I feel it was a more positive than a negative review.
After a year what type of relationship do the staff have with one another? Probably 90 percent of the staff are people that opened Uncle with me. Even though we are all different people, we are kind of like a family. You might hate your coworker one day but you are still friends the next day. It is just learning how to work with people from different backgrounds and learning about each other.
One former staff member, Travis Masar, is headed to be on Top Chef Seattle this fall? What do you think about that? I think it is amazing. I have nothing but good things to say about him. He was a great part of us opening. He was my executive chef. He did a lot for this restaurant as far as letting me have the freedom to make sure the pieces were there and not have to worry so much as to what was going on in the kitchen. I can't wait to see him on TV.
Is there anything exciting in the works for Uncle? We are working on a patio next. We just got a liquor licenses approved outside. The kitchen would have to change if we ever wanted to open for lunch or if we ever wanted to become a true ramen shop just based on volume. I think it's cool what we are adding now but, at the same time, it's very uneven. I feel like we are half this restaurant and half a ramen restaurant. It would be nice for it to be settled down to more of a specific concept. The customers dictate that a lot based just on what we sell. 90 percent of what we sell are buns and ramen and that's how we've focused the menu. If we could just do buns and ramen, that would be awesome, just to make things simple. At the same time, we like to do different things with food and experiment and put out little dishes that are interesting to us and hopefully diners, but, for me, the more simple the better.
Are you considering expanding Uncle or opening another shop? I would love to open another ramen shop somewhere. My thing is that I feel Denver is still a pretty small dining city, so it always worries me. Could another ramen shop exist in another part of town and be successful? I think a lot of success is based on the area we are in. It is a neighborhood restaurant. It might just take a leap of faith to see what works. I would love to open other concepts just based on what the chefs under me want to do. I am extremely lucky to have what we've done here and if I can give someone else the same opportunity, that's part of my goal.
What makes you the most proud about Uncle? Personally, the food has been the biggest thing for me because I am basically cooking something I have never done before and I think our ramen is better than good. To see it evolve from where we started to where we are now is pretty special. For people to compare us to other restaurants in Denver that are of high caliber, that is amazing. People will be like "I ate at Frasca Food and Wine or Squeaky Bean last night" and tonight they are here and they are like "this is amazing." It is cool that more people in Denver are more open to different concepts and types of foods. That's the point of any ramen shop, putting something out that is really good for not that much money.
After one year in business is there any regrets about opening a restaurant? I didn't know I always wanted to do restaurants. I'm the type of person I like to create things and a restaurant seemed liked a good avenue for that. Based on loving food, loving cooking, and dining experiences in general. I just wasn't always sure I wanted to put the work in it. This place most the time doesn't seem like work, it's just fun. It's my life.
— By Kelsey Colt