Hop Alley Restaurant Pays Homage to Owner’s Roots and City’s History

By Emily Maxwell
Jan. 24, 2023

Born and raised in Denver, Tommy Lee’s family maintained a strong connection to their Chinese heritage through food. During his childhood, only a handful of Asian restaurants were open, and the only place they could purchase instant noodles was Pacific Mercantile. But the Lee family was always on the hunt for Chinese cuisine, which is why his family ate most of their meals at home. 

“I grew up with a very spoiled food background,” said Lee. “My dad cooked six days a week.”
Both of his parents left Hong Kong for the United States to attend college. They met in Oregon and their careers led them to Denver. Throughout Lee’s childhood, they visited Hong Kong, where he experienced authentic Chinese cuisine firsthand. He even lived there for three months after college. That exposure heavily influenced his decision to become a chef and restaurant owner. 
Growing up here, Lee said he always wondered why Denver, unlike cities such as San Francisco and New York, had no Chinatown. Only when he opened his second restaurant — in an area near the former neighborhood — did he discover the history
“It wasn’t until I was 35 years old that I knew a Chinatown existed,” he said. 
Lee is the head chef and owner of Uncle, which opened its doors in 2012 in the Highlands and has since grown to two locations. Following that success, he was ready to take on a concept influenced by the foods and spices of his childhood and opened Hop Alley in RiNo in 2015.
“Hop Alley is a modern regional Chinese restaurant with a modern bar program,” said Lee. We concentrate on traditional Chinese regional flavors. Our menu is built on a traditional Chinese menu where everything’s family style.” 
Denver’s historic Chinatown was settled about 1870 in what is now LoDo and included a wide variety of businesses such as Chinese markets, tea houses, clothing shops, herbalists, and acupuncturists. There were also opium dens. Although often frequented by white residents, the presence of places where the drug could be used — and the prevalence of Anti-Chinese sentiments at the time — the whole area was labeled with the derogatory term of Hop Alley. 
“Finding out that the old nickname of the Chinatown was ‘Hop Alley,’ I guess a lot of people could say that it’s a very offensive name because it was a Western term for this seedy area, and so I thought it would be a cool way to reclaim that name as something different, especially me being a Chinese American,” said Lee. 
Lee discovered Chinatown’s history while doing research for the restaurant. He also found other Asian ties that felt serendipitous, such as a building on Larimer Street that had been used as both a Chinese commissary to make wonton skins and the Japanese soy sauce company Rafu Shoyu. 
“I'm not a very religious person, but my mom is a little bit religious, and she would say, ‘Oh, you know, it was meant to be that this is a Chinese restaurant!” 
Lee hopes his restaurant will expose guests to traditional Chinese flavors and shine a light on Chinatown’s overlooked history. 
“Based on where I lived and where I grew up, I didn't have very many Chinese friends. You know, for me, it's beautiful to see this history in Denver.”