5 Things to Know about Denver's New Hop Alley
The gist: When chef and restaurateur Tommy Lee opened Uncle, his ode to Asian-fusion, in 2012, it didn't take long for the diminutive space to clinch a place on just about everyone's must-go list. More than three years later, the LoHi restaurant shows no signs of slowing down. And now Hop Alley, Lee's new Chinese restaurant in a former soy sauce factory and wonton commissary, is fast becoming the city's most talked about restaurant sequel. Located on the fringe of Denver's original Chinatown — now a distant memory — the restaurant, whose kitchen is quarterbacked by chef Todd Somma (formerly of Uncle), is pushing the culinary envelope with its menu, cooking methods, wine list and cocktails.
The space: Clocking in at just over 1,850-sq.-ft., the 57-seat quarters emphasize a modern and clutter-free atmosphere that combines, says Lee, "highbrow and lowbrow elements." Bereft of clichéd Asian trappings (save, maybe, for the red Hong Kong market lights that shimmer above the otherwise dimly lit space), it's all about clean lines and understated subtlety. The cherry-wood tables — all topped with small candles and cannisters of chopsticks — are matched with simple white chairs. The wood-sided walls are charred black, a Japanese burning technique that renders the wood resistant to fire and creates a dramatic high-design feature that sits in stark contrast to the white subway-tiled open kitchen. A 10-seat community table borders the kitchen, while an eight-seat table, equipped with a lazy Susan, is nestled into a windowed corner. "It makes you feel like you're actually in a Chinese restaurant," says Lee, who was intent on conceptualizing a restaurant that offered family-style, sharable plates and gratified large parties.
The food: Lee originally wanted to open a restaurant dedicated to yakitori, but the space, he decided, was too large for that concept. So he channeled his Chinese roots, scoured obscure Chinese cookbooks for recipes and concluded that while there are plenty of Chinese-American restaurants in Denver, very few represent the vast regional cuisines of China. At Hop Alley, there are Taiwanese, Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan and even Chinese-Muslim influences splayed across the 15-item menu. The goal, explains Lee, is to "create delicious dishes with flavor profiles that aren't common in Denver while keeping the authenticity of Chinese recipes — and updating them with different techniques and better ingredients."
To that end, a focal point in the kitchen is a wood-fired grill (the kitchen uses locally sourced woods) that's uncommon to most Chinese kitchens but imparts hints of smoke and char to several of Hop Alley's dishes, including a whole Alamosa bass and a pork chop that's sliced and served with mashed garlic sauce and bean sprouts. Lee's classic Cantonese-style salt-and-peppered soft-shell crab (pictured above), battered in pureed tofu thinned with water and dredged in flour and breadcrumbs, is stir-fried with garlic and chiles in the wok and plated with bibb lettuce cups, pickled red onions, lime aioli and half of a grill-streaked lime. The terrific Japanese eggplant (pictured below), salted and steamed, is pooled in a traditional Sichuan soy bean sauce spiked with housemade chile oil and crisped garlic and poppy seeds for texture and then topped with a refreshing salad of bean sprouts, cilantro, pickled ginger and onions. "We wanted to focus on regional Chinese flavors that we really love, but instead of doing a typical 200-item Chinese menu, we pared it down to 15 items that I think we're doing really well," says Lee.
The bar program: The nine-seat bar, illuminated by strands of white lights that stretch across the ceiling and cast a glow on the concrete countertop, is overseen by bar manager Kam Mataraci, whose drink syllabus, like the menu, is anything but elementary. He's created a dozen cocktails — all named after a Chinese zodiac sign — that include the Year of the Monkey (pictured below), made with gin, soju, campari, sesame and a shiso leaf. It's essentially a sophisticated Asian variation on a negroni. Other cocktails, like the gin-forward, tiki-esque Year of the Tiger, are dispensed from a bubble tea sealing machine that produces fruity, flirty drinks that flow into flower-inked plastic cups and come with a straw. Meanwhile, there's draft cider and numerous craft beers, including a forthcoming one that will be brewed exclusively for Hop Alley by Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company. And the thoughtfully curated, unorthodox wine list — the handiwork of sommelier Matt Mulligan — is heavy on esoteric bottles (think gewürztraminer, riesling, gamay and cabernet franc) that pair well with the bold flavors inherent to Chinese cooking. "You don't see a lot of traditional Chinese restaurants in Denver with a strong wine component, so we addressed that and chose some very drinkable wines that really complement the food," says Lee.
The details: Hop Alley is open from 5:30 PM-11 PM Monday through Saturday. 3500 Larimer St.; 720-379-8340
Photos by Adam Bove and Lori Midson