03 December 2014

A serving of superiority makes the ramen so much better...

I have wanted to eat at Uncle in Denver since they opened. I mean, just look at this beautiful photo of their work that welcomes you upon visiting their website:

I know, right?!  And you know I loves me some ramen. So, I finally went last week on Thanksgiving Eve (after a delicious stop at Station 26 Brewing in the Park Hill neighborhood.  You should go). Here's how that went down:

Uncle does not take reservations.  They state it plainly on their website, so I'm not saying I wasn't warned.  I figured at 5:30pm, practically senior citizen dinner hour, it would be slow, but when we got there, the waiting area was ass-deep in hungry hipsters.  Contributing to the seating issue was the fact that it's very tiny, hot, and loud in the restaurant. Well, it contributed to my issues, anyway.

But it's OK, because Highland Tap & Burger is right next door, and that place is huge. So I gave the hostess my digits (is that so totally dated lingo?) and went next door to drink. That place is good, so I'm going to fill you in on that in another post.

We were told the wait would be 25 minutes. Fine. I was a quarter of the way through my Moscow mule at HT&B when I got a very excited text AND voicemail telling me a table was ready and I had 8 minutes to return and claim it.  I wimpered a little and slammed my very strong drink (OK, I got some help with it) and, lightheaded, stumbled next door.

There was no table ready, and we ended up sitting for the remainder of our originally promised 25-minute wait crammed into a tiny space with said hungry hipsters.  I mean, they were clean, but I still would have preferred to be back in the dark, cozy-yet-spacious bar where that huge copper cup of vodka had gone unloved (consumed, but underappreciated, anyway).  Shame,  I think it tasted good, but it went by too fast to tell.

Our "table" was two awkwardly high stools at the bar, where we got to watch the cooks put together the food.  It was kind of cool to watch what they were doing, but it was also the hottest, most humid, and  noisiest part of the little space being called a restaurant.  And I kept kicking over my purse at my feet, which sucked. Disclaimer: I was buzzed, and I am short, so maybe this wouldn't be a problem for everyone. Maybe just don't carry a purse to Uncle if you go.

Our view from the bar.

So, for the food and service: our waiter was a douchebag extraordinaire, complete with "kindly brontosaurus" posture (I'm on to you, dude!), patronizing voice, and that age-old question: "Alright, have you visited us here at Uncle before?"  Here's why I hate that question:

  • I'm not visiting you like you're my aunt I haven't seen in a while.  I am exchanging money for a service. You are a business.
  • No, I have not been here before, but your menu is very easy to understand and there isn't much on it, so I think I'll be OK.
  • I am not a moron, so please stand upright and stop using your sing-songy voice. 
Now, I have been treated to special free things for being a virgin before, and if that had happened, it would have negated all of my above complaints. But as I suspected, Uncle does not play that game. 

Our waiter also asked if we wanted any drinks to start (their drink menu is actually pretty pedestrian, and how many of these dishes could possibly go with red wine?!). I told him his neighbors had already gotten our drink money, and he rolled his eyes.  OK, it was lame, but I'm still proud of that one, so there you go. 

But you know what?  I'm in a hipster neighborhood in Denver, which is almost akin to Seattle these days with the skinny jeans, bow ties, and nerd glasses, so I merely rolled my eyes back and got ready to dig in to the menu.  The carefully crafted broths, homemade ramen noodles, and steamed buns would be worth the mild irritation.  

We ordered pork belly steamed buns, which comes two to an order.  They look like this: 

It's a slab of fried pork belly with sliced cucumber and scallions and dressed with hoisin sauce.  The bread was really soft and puffy, so that was nice.  The pork had nice flavor and tenderness, but it didn't seem seasoned at all.  It desperately needed some salt at the very least.  Black pepper also would have been nice. And the hoisin sauce was all at the bottom of the bun, so the pork itself was naked, and at the end I got a mouthful of sauce on what was left of the bun. Except for the part that just drizzled onto the plate.  That was my pork belly steamed bun.  $7. Boo. 

Then we got bowls of ramen. I was excited about the kimchi bowl with shredded pork, matchsticks of daikon radish, and a soft egg.  My dinner companion got the spicy chicken, which boasted a creamy sesame broth, bean sprouts, scallion, and a soft egg (that's it to the left).  I was skeptical of the creaminess, but it was actually delicious.  The broth was earthy, bright, and had a present umami flavor.  I don't know what was in it (miso? tahini?), but it was delicious and really unique.  My broth was just spicy with heavy vinegar and salt present.  I guess that describes kimchi, too, but when I make a kimchi stew at home, I make sure there's something else going on in the broth besides that.  I mean, kimchi is a condiment, right?  So it can be over-the-top strong as long as there's something else to balance it.  This was not the case with Uncle's kimchi broth.

The vegetables were nicely cut and laying on top of the bowls; not much to say there.  The eggs were very nicely cooked and, when broken, really added some pleasant richness to the broths.  And the noodles were quite good.  Super chewy and stretchy, they were really satisfying to eat, and the enormous bowls we were served had generous amounts of them in each.  But in the end, it's about the broth for me.  I mean, yes, the noodles too, because they are homemade (though Uncle claims no credit for making them in print, which leads me to believe that they are coming from somewhere else). So, then there's the broth, which provides all the flavor, and is also the main ingredient by volume and weight, in the bowl.  The spicy chicken was worth trying, but the kimchi was not.  And for $14/bowl, you might be just as happy trying similar-looking recipes from The Food Lab or Just One Cookbook.

My age might just be showing, because I found the crowded, noisy quarters slightly uncomfortable, the wait and corresponding, overly controlling texts annoying, and the extreme sense of pride Uncle seems to have in its soup and unseasoned pork a little comical.  So, go ahead and squeeze into your tightest olive green skinny cords and flannel shirt, polish up those enormous 80s-style plastic frames, and give it a try.  But be prepared for the slightly empty feeling you have in heart afterwards.