I laughed when a German acquaintance had told me that he had went to a Wienerschnitzel thinking it was going to be German food (I had a slight case of #schadenfreude).
The disappointment he must have felt is the same disappointment I feel trying to find one decent Japanese restaurant in Colorado #badkarma.
Finding such bastardized Japanese food in Colorado is how I felt when I was on my last night of my trip in Korea, and we went to “Ashley’s American Grille” with our gracious hosts.
Even though I was hoping for a home cooked Korean meal, I tried to keep a positive attitude about Ashley’s American Grill, so I turned to my inner Annie “the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there’ll be sun!”
The food at Ashley’s looked as American as apple pie, a pink flamingo, and a slim and lean 285 lb. Muuurican with a fanny pack, but unfortunately every time I tried something, it had a Korean spin on it, and not a good one either.
So how do they eff up on mashed potatoes or a pizza? Easy, you sweeten it up by adding a bagful of marshmallow, or a handful of raisins to dishes that were never sweet like a potato salad, or you turn a New York style pizza into a cheesecake pizza cuz Korea.
My guess is that about 92% of the Japanese themed restaurants in Colorado have neither a Japanese owner, employee, or anybody who has ever been to Japan. If they had, it sure isn’t reflective with the food here, and they wouldn’t make all the laughable spelling mistakes like calling a roll an “oshiko (oshikko)” to “take a piss roll” vs. “oshinko” or “pickled radish roll” to knowing the difference between “tonkatsu” or “breaded pork cutlet” and “tonkotsu” which is “pork broth.”
If the spelling wasn’t bad enough, I liken the approach of these restaurants to Jurassic Park when they needed to fill in the missing dinosaurs DNA. In the movie, they just use a frogs DNA which is what these restaurants do when they don’t know the specifics of a Japanese dish. Instead of doing actual Japanese food (they aren’t aware that they can “google” a recipe), they fill in what they do not know with either a Chinese, Thai, Korean, or “step back; I’m a chef bro, watch this.”
So What is Authentic Japanese Food?
To over simplify things, authentic Japanese food focuses on the natural flavors or on dishes that enhance the flavor of the ingredient, or dishes that include varying ratios of shoyu (soy sauce), mirin (sweet wine), sake (rice wine), and dashi (stock). If the dish has a ton of sauces made of mayo, spicy or sweet sauces, it is most likely not Japanese, but in a future blog post I’ll go into more detail.
“Japanese” and “Ramen” are the New Marketing Buzzwords
All the effort and decades of experience and specialization that goes into Japanese food is bastardized by some lazy fock restaurant owner that just adds it to the menu without any effort. One such place is a new “ramen” place called “Ramen 303” in Arvada which is a Thai restaurant that for whatever reason decided to change their name to include “ramen” vs. sticking with a “Thai noodle restaurant” like they had been.
The 8 Most Authentic Japanese Restaurants in Colorado
Below are restaurants that are not all owned or staffed strictly by Japanese people either (not like it has to be), but the list below represent what real Japanese food is like.
1. Amu, Boulder, CO
Type of restaurant/food: they call themselves “Izakaya Amu” (an izakaya is like a pub), but this place is a lot like a kappo style restaurant which consists of a counter with the staff cooking or preparing raw, simmered, grilled, or deep-fried foods directly in front of you. Although if they consider themselves an izakaya, I’ll drink to that.
Price range: here are a few items that I had, and I managed to find a few of the prices online (not easy to find): hijiki $3.75, tempura $14, katsuo sashimi $17 (pictured), and aigamo (duck) $14.75 or wagyu (I think it was SRF wagyu) shabu shabu for $22.
Authenticity: 4.5 out of 5, for experience, food, and atmosphere. This is the closest place to Japan on the list because not only do they do the above, but they also don’t allow shoes in the restaurant! Damn, that’s straight out gangsta. So if you have an aversion to being barefoot, eating dinner with only your socks on, or you’re that type that doesn’t like to do things with the lights on, this place is not for you.
On the downside: this is still Colorado, so some of the dishes come up short like the poorly prepared tempura for the price to the very basic shabu shabu which consisted of primarily meat which was not that well marbled for a wagyu (what was the BMS rating).
On the upside: There’s only two restaurants on this list that an actual Japanese person would probably feel at home at which is Amu and Kiki’s. The reason why this place would attract native Japanese is that they have dishes you just won’t find at any of Colorado’s fusion restaurants such as hijiki, croquette, okonomiyaki, mozoku, and fish roe.
2. Cherry Hills Sushi Co., Cherry Hills Village, CO
Type of restaurant/food: poke restaurants seem to be opening everywhere, but the next type of business that people will be capitalizing on are “temaki” (handroll) restaurants although Cherry Hills Sushi does hosomaki (single ingredient rolls) and sashimi.
Price Range: 3 rolls for $10.00, 4 for $14, and 5 for $18. Now onto what is essential, the alcohol prices which are $5.50 for Orion, and $7.50 for the Echigo Koshihikari which is well worth it. I say that because you’ll only find a lot of these beers in LA which somewhat justifies the pricing on a lot of the beers that go up to $10. The overall cost here is very close to Kazunori in Los Angeles in which a lot of places are modeling themselves off of, except for the beer where Kazunori has the typical and favorite amongst Japanese, Sapporo which is only $5 and on draft.
Authenticity: 4 out of 5, it is close enough to the real deal for Colorado, and the interior of CHS is also not in a typical sushi bar layout, but in a square layout like Kazunori.
On the downside: Aside from the paper plates, if you’re going to drink, they don’t offer the typical Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi draft. So, unfortunately your only options are the pricey canned, yet hard to get Japanese beers outside of California. I’ve personally already had and drank almost everything they carry, so my workaround was to stick with their second cheapest beer which they charge $7.50 for. The cheapest option is an Okinawan beer called Orion ($5.50), but I don’t drink it. It’s only popular in Okinawa and Colorado for whatever reason (every place in Denver carries it). Not even in Japan is Orion popular because they only have a 0.8% market share vs. Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo who own the majority of it. Although if you don’t like beer, they also have a great selection of Japanese whiskies and sakes.
On the upside: sushi and hosomaki can easily be eff’d up, but when you have a personable, and a non-pretentious staff/owner that’ll make you overlook a lot of things (like the sushi shari, nori, only having low-sodium shoyu, and an inconsistent amount of fillings). Afterall, I always say a business is a reflection of the owner, and based upon that, this place will do really well and they’re helping to keep my sodium intake in check.
Address: 1400 E Hampden Ave #110, Cherry Hills Village, CO 80113 Instagram: cherryhills_sushico
3. Domo Japanese Country Food Restaurant, Denver, CO
Type of restaurant/food: country-style Japanese dishes, along with their own creation called “wanko sushi” which is a play off of wanko soba. If you’re wondering what “wanko” is, imagine bite site portions put into small little saucers served one at a time in succussion till you can’t eat anymore.
Price Range: $8.50 to $13.50 for lunch, and about $17.50 for combo’s. A 5-course wanko sushi (only served for dinner) will run you $29.50 with each additional servings for $5 fitty.
Authenticity: 3.5 out of 5, the “better do ramen bandwagon menu” sucks, but the interior and the rest of the menu makes up for their hack offerings. One such thing to order is the matcha iced tea, and you’ll feel like you’re not in Colorado.
On the downside: they must be having some staffing issues here because I’ve had some very good service to bad with one waitress who was trying to appeal to some bros with “yo, yea, I just got a job here, and yea I’d get that, but I don’t even know what the hell that is, you feel me dawg (dudes were like why you trying so hard).” It doesn’t just end there with the front of the house, and the kitchen is also sloppy (inconsistent), and you can hear them fuck’n around in the kitchen, but the major downside is with the menu (hella confusing), and that they added “ramen” or noodles to the menu. Seeing and trying it, I could only think “what a hack” attempt.
On the upside: the small country-style dishes and the wanko style sushi that is unique to Domo is what stand outs here on the menu, but the most impressive thing is the venue itself. You can liken it to Denver’s iconic Casa Bonita in that the venue can overshadow the food, but I wish both places would step it up (Eric Cartman and I would appreciate that).
4. Katsu Ramen, Aurora, CO
Type of restaurant/food: Ramen, but I like the other items here more than the ramen. The gyoza being one of those items, and I’d want to come here just for that.
Price Range: only $8.95 to $10.50 for katsu curry and gyudon, and they offer three item combos for $14.95 (the portions aren’t tiny either).
Authenticity: 3.5 out of 5, Katsu would be like an authentically bad ramen-ya in Japan, but in Aurora, CO it’s fantastic. I say that because it is all over the place with the toppings, and the broth is on the very weak side although it is better than most of the places in Colorado. Also like I said before, the gyoza is what you want because it is on par with the better places in California.
On the downside: the tonkotsu broth is weak, and for some odd reason all the ramen restaurants throw in the kitchen sink, and then some when you order ramen. For the tonkotsu ramen they add Chinese bok choy, moyashi (bean sprouts), naruto (fish cake), and they top it all off with beni shoga (pickled ginger). Seeing that here, I can’t imagine anybody here being happy with a slice of pepperoni pizza without the urge to put anchovies, pineapple, and tuna fish on it.
On the upside: Katsu is on the list because they offer an expansive menu, an interior that is Japanese with their little bits of Japanese culture splashed around the place. If you didn’t realize they were a Japanese restaurant before entering the restaurant, the plastic food displays outside should have tipped you off because it’s a common sight to see in Japan, and Katsu is one of the few, if not the only place in Colorado to still have these food displays anymore.
5. Kiki’s Japanese Casual Dining, Denver, CO
Type of restaurant/food: Japanese people don’t eat sushi everyday (well, I do #lavishlife), and instead they love to eat a mix of dishes like Japanese curry, grilled fish, deep-fried pork cutlet, pickled vegetables, ramen, to a dozen other dishes that can be found only at Kiki’s, unless you have a Japanese friend that can throw down in the kitchen, like me (*wink *wink).
Price Range: lunch starts at only $8.95 and dinner can be anywhere from $15.45 to $27.95 (sushi) although on average you’re looking at only about $15 that includes an unlimited amount of self-serve miso soup and salad with most entrees.
Authenticity: 4 out of 5, you will not find this variety or type of Japanese food anywhere else in all of Denver….that I know of at the time of this post. You can find teriyaki, kalbi, sweet and sour chicken, and California roll combo’s everywhere else though.
On the downside: I don’t think I’ve ever come here for sushi or sashimi, but since they’re in Colorado, I think everybody here expects every Japanese restaurant to have it.
On the upside: they do too many things right here although there was a point several years back they had a misfire, but going back years later the food is so damn good. Their katsu curry beats the average casual katsu curry restaurants you’d find throughout Los Angeles, but throw in the cozy, comfy, homie “Japanesy” interior with a huge eff’n menu and unlimited soup and salad, and this is one of, if not Denver’s only best casual Japanese dining spots.
6. Kuniko’s Teriyaki Grill, Grand Junction, CO
Type of food: tempura, donburi, sushi to a bunch of items that probably includes a teriyaki combo of sorts (like most restaurants do).
Price Range: donburi starts at $8.36 up to 12.08. Sushi rolls go from $9.29 to $13.01… what’s up with the way they priced everything, haha (no even numbers here).
Authenticity: 4 out of 5, and they are probably one of the few places (if not, the only) in all of Colorado where they dress like the waitstaff in Japan, so being here felt so Japanese even if you’re in rural Grand Junction, Colorado with population of 60k. Toss in all the things the owner has collected in her travels to Japan, and you have an interior that is decorated with so many cool little touches like the giant origami cranes to the Studio Ghibli Spirited Away miniatures, and you have a slice of Japan in Colorado (only Kiki’s comes close).
On the downside: why do they have to be 4 hours outside of Denver in Grand Junction, CO!?! Even a flight from DEN to GJT is $250-$500+, so that isn’t going to work for me unless I take a weekend road trip.
On the upside: Oyakodon! or when translated means “baby and mother” which might not sound appetizing when you say it that way, but all it is are cuts of chicken (mother) and an egg (baby), all cooked over a bowl of rice with a light soy based broth.
7. Sushi Sasa, Highlands, Denver, CO
Type of restaurant/food: Sasa is a sushi restaurant, and my personal favorite spot if I want to go have real sushi.
Price Range: for nigiri sushi (2-pieces) you’re looking at $7 for maguro, $6.50 hamachi, $9 ikura, $11 kinmedai, to $14.00 toro. Sushi rolls go from $5.50 for an asparagus roll to their most expensive dragon roll for $18.95.
Authenticity: 4 out of 5, sushi can be seen as very simple, but there are a lot of small details that exemplifies the craft in Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, so many places opt to do the lazy and easy Americanized sushi/rolls that consist of poor quality ingredients covered in a ton of mayo, sweet and spicy sauces, and crunchiness. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just think of that dude who hasn’t showered, and he just opts to dowse himself with a half bottle of cologne (*sniff *sniff, mmmhh, B.O. and Drakkar Noir.)
On the downside: it’s still Colorado, so they charge a premium like many of the other sushi bars that are trying to compete on the same level. They also do a lot of the fusion stuff here too, so expect to find steamed pork buns, long beans and asparagus with duck egg and a miso honey oyster sauce glaze (is that Chinese? or fusionese), bechamel (French), fried shallots, to a Korean style calamari.
On the upside: if you want to try what a real Japanese nigiri sushi is like, this is one of the very few places in Colorado to be able to do that.
8. Tokio, Downtown, Denver, CO
Type of food: this is the typical “try to do it all” spot you see in rural and with midwest places minus the hibachi grill, but as for Tokio, they actually do a lot of things right. Not only is their yakitori decent, but you might want to try the ramen which is very pricey and over done with their chili strands to other extraneous toppings although it is not totally bad.
Price Range: $3 to $5 per yakitori (vs. $1-2), but Colorado yakitori is bigger than what you’d have in Japan. The wagyu goes for a pricey $15, and Sapporo and Kirin are only $5, so this is the closest place you will find to a yakitori-ya.
Authenticity: 4 out of 5, eating yakitori is like a pub experience where you can eat and drink with small tapas style plates/portions throughout the night. Majority of these businesses are not dedicated to one type of cuisine, so they attempt to do sushi, ramen, and yakitori. I’m cool with that, but my gripe is with the venues in Colorado, they are the opposite of Japan, and none come close to the fun casual izakaya experience.
On the downside: the ceiling height and all that empty space is probably bigger than the entire restaurant, so you’ll want to call ahead to check on wait times because this place is not that big, especially if you want to sit at the bar to watch them grill the yakitori.
On the upside: a decent amount of covered parking in the rear parking garage makes this spot an easy choice if you’re concerned about finding parking.
- Sakura House, 1255 19th St, Denver, CO 80202. They’re located in the heart of what little of a “Japan town” exists in Denver which is next to the Denver Buddhist Temple, Tamai Towers, and the iconic Pacific Mercantile market. As for Sakura House, my experience here is that they are short on value and experience with their extremely casual food and atmosphere.
- Sakana Sushi, 7520 Sheridan Blvd, Westminster, CO 80003. I still have not been, but every single nihonjin (Japanese) person I’ve spoken to, loves this place. So right there, you know it has got to be good because this is coming from issei, nisei, to yonsei (1st, 2nd, to 4th generation Japanese Americans).
- Sushi Den, 1487 S Pearl St, Denver, CO 80210. it is really hard to promote Sushi Den because this place is stuck in the 90’s. With all the money they have made, all they have done is to continue to push themselves to do more fusion and more Eurocentric BS which is what they have been doing. All three restaurants that they own on the same block are basically all the same with absolutely no vision, and they act like the kid who’s trying to please their white friends.
- Osaka Ramen, 2611 Walnut St, Denver, CO 80205. if they can actually do a decent tonkotsu broth that isn’t salfty AF (their possible misinterpretation of “shio” ramen?), this place probably has the best potential to reign supreme for ramen, but until that happens, other non-traditional ramen places will outshine them in taste and preparation.