My favorite thing about Chef Tommy Lee (besides just what a sweet guy he is — remind me to tell you the story about the bowl of ramen he swiped from me because the dude pays attention) is that he takes traditional flavors and reimagines their delivery. He’ll mash up touchstones or deconstruct legacy dishes. He’ll twist an old saw into a melodious manifestation. And — let’s be fair — he’ll turn a historically inexpensive dish into a newfangled variation that will weigh heavy on your wallet. But you’ll still thank him for it afterward.
One of my favorite Lee creations is fully accessible — and you won’t need to wait in line or make a reso to get to it. It’s one of the remaining chef-driven sandwiches the talented folks at Open put on the menu when they set up shop at Spinelli’s Market, and for good reason.
The Tommy Ming Lee is one of his classic amalgamations of flavors and traditions. It’s a classic Jewish deli sandwich with a Chinatown paint job on a Vietnamese bahn mi chassis. It’s a French dip with a spicy sidepiece. It’s comfort food that will nudge you out of complacency. It’s a flavorful tapestry of Denver’s diverse cultural heritage you can eat with one hand.
The braised brisket is toothsome and substantial, melted provolone holding it in place, with sesame red wine mayo all gooshy and zingy and mushed in with pickled onions and arugula. The whole thing is served on a crusty baguette that won’t scratch the roof of your mouth, but the power move is to dip the edge of your sandwich into the accompanying Sichuan peppercorn jus to soften the crust and add a refreshing slap in the face to your lunch experience.
If you can keep the innards from squeezing out of the bread, each bite is a perfect microcosm of collaboration; upscale and down-home, with flavors and aromas you’d pick up while hanging in the kitchen with your immigrant grandparent who’s telling stories about their journey to the US. It’s a combination of crunchy and soft, it’s sweet and spicy and acidic, and ends with a “wait, what’s that I’m tasting?” bit of mystery.
Just like us and our mile high town, it’s messy and interesting and wonderful.