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/authentic Japanese restaurant in Colorado #badkarma.
Finding such bastardized Japanese food in Colorado is how I felt on the last night of my trip in Korea because 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 being taken to Ashley’s American Grill. So I turned to my inner Annie and sang in my head: “the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there’ll be sun!”
The food at Ashley’s American Grille looked as American as apple pie, a pink flamingo, and a slim and lean 285 lb. Muuurican with a fanny pack. Unfortunately, every time I tried something, it had a Korean spin on it, and not a good one. 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.
I am about to show you would be like taking an Italian out for pizza at Pizza Hut, topped off with a venti Frappuccino at Starbucks.
Why they added corn, spinach, and a poached egg? Cuz Colorado, because none of these ingredients are found commonly together in Japanese ramen, but the worst part, they 86’d the ramen egg for a poached egg, WTF.
My guess is that about 92%? of the Japanese themed/inspired restaurants in Colorado have neither a Japanese owner, employee, or anybody who has ever been to Japan.
Not All Asians Are Japanese
One of the funniest things I have seen recently was a news segment of a local sushi restaurant. The female reporter in the segment goes on to ask one of the Asian sushi chef dudes a random question about something very Japanese, but all he can do is stare back at her dumbfounded. Not a surprise since she assumed he is somehow Japanese, yet it was obvious to me, he was not.
My guess is that about 92%? of the Japanese themed/inspired restaurants in Colorado have neither a Japanese owner, employee, or anybody who has ever been to Japan (only Sushi Den has a BOH with a staff with a large majority of Japanese). If they had, it sure isn’t reflective with the food here, and Okinawa Sushi wouldn’t make all the laughable spelling mistakes like calling a roll an “oshiko (oshikko)” to “take a piss/urinate roll (meaning in Japanese)” vs. “oshinko” or “pickled radish” roll.
Knowing the difference between “tonkatsu” (breaded pork cutlet, like a schnitzel) to “tonkotsu” (pork broth) is almost as basic as getting the significance of the name of your restaurant. It is lost on whoever came up with “Okinawa” because that is like saying Hawaii is the state that best represents all of the U.S., it doesn’t, and Okinawa is more on par with Hawaii. Not to mention, even in Los Angeles, there is only ONE restaurant in all of California that considers itself Okinawan which is owned by the talented Mayumi’san who is Okinawan.
Chinese, Korean, Fusion is ConFusion Food
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, throws a bunch of ‘Asiany’ ingredients all together and calls it Japanese.”
So What is Authentic Japanese Food?
To oversimplify things, authentic Japanese food focuses on the natural flavors or on dishes that enhance the flavor of the ingredient. Other than that, most dishes will 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 Marketing Buzzwords in Colorado
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.
This sucks for Japanese food and culture in Colorado because I have had a Japanese friend say that he didn’t like Mexican food, and I was like “well where did you go?” His response, “Taco Bell.” Now, if you think ramen or Japanese food sucks, I’m going to blame these businesses that are just cashing in on the popularity of real Japanese restaurants in coastal cities where there is a significant population of Japanese to Japanese Americans (Colorado is primarily Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, to Korean).
The 10 Most “Authentic” Japanese Restaurants in Colorado from Denver to Grand Junction
Below are restaurants that are not all owned or staffed strictly by Japanese people either (good, not like it has to be), but the list below represent business owners who are giving you glimpse of what real Japanese food is like.
1. Amu – Boulder
Any business that requires you to take off your shoes in Colorado can only be in Boulder because even in California, only restaurants with a tatami matt section require you to do that (I love it).
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. The wagyu they had also served was not that well marbled either (had to be low on the BMS scale).
On the upside: There are 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. & Park Hills Sushi Co. – Cherry Hills Village
An owner is a reflection of the business which is why the service from the wait staff will be an enjoyable experience. I might even say that it might outshine the food, especially when it is over a couple of beers, sake, to Japanese whisky.
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.
Cherry Hills Sushi Co
3. Domo Japanese Country Food – Denver
I only gravitate to the “country-style” dishes that reminds me of my obachan’s (grandmother) cooking and the wanko sushi although the Japanese country-side interior out does any place in Los Angeles to the Bay Area.
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 on one of the days I went, you could hear them fuck’n around in the kitchen. The only other major downside is with the menu being 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 although 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 sometimes, but I wish both places would step it up (Eric Cartman and I would appreciate that).
Domo Japanese Country Food
4. Katsu Ramen – Aurora
I hope the gyoza is made in-house here because it is one of the better items I have had although I like their overall experience which mimics a real Japanese experience from their drinks (Ramune to Ito-en green tea).
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 (there’s no such thing as regional ramen styles here, so do not believe them when they say “Osaka”), 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 not 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
I have so much history with Kiki’s, and I have a more in-depth review on the restaurant that serves up what Japanese people typically eat in Japan (katsudon, curry, to a number of other dishes other restaurants are oblivious to).
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.
Kiki’s Japanese Casual Dining
6. Kuniko’s Teriyaki Grill – Grand Junction
I was shocked to see a Japanese mother and daughter in rural Grand Junction because there are very few Japanese in Colorado, not to mention owning and operating a restaurant in Colorado (the menu reflects that they are Nihonjin).
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.
Kuniko’s Teriyaki Grill
7. Sushi Sasa – Highlands, Denver
Nigiri sushi comes off as easy/simple to do, but if you have ever had sushi in Japan, you will know the details matter. Sushi Sasa is one of the only places that can come even close to that experience in Japan.
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
There is all too much capability here, and this is the only restaurant that comes even close to doing yakitori right (or at the very least knowing what it is).
Type of food: this is the typical “try to do it all” spot you see in rural and with midwest places minus the teppanyaki 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.
9. Sushi Kazu – Centennial (EDIT: added on 4/25/18)
Kazu’san can’t typically get his sushi rice right (overcooked), but there is a lot of history here because the ex-owner of Samurai restaurant (a restaurant from the 80’s) also works here. Also say hi to Yamaguchi’san (waitress).
Type of food: walking into this sushi bar, I didn’t find the typical things you’d expect to find in a Colorado sushi bar like sweet and sour pork, kalbi, or any “con-fusion” dishes. What you do get is a place that touts “run by a Japanese sushi chef….that explains our sushi!”
Price Range: first of all, on Sundays they have a happy hour with an even further discounted sushi menu which is already cheap as it is. Just look at these daily menu prices that are listed on their website. For 2-pieces of nigiri sushi, you’re looking at only $5.10 for the maguro, $7.95 aji, $5.10 hamachi, to $4.95 for the ikura. If you’re not a nigiri sushi type, a salmon skin to a hamachi temaki will run you only $4.40 to $4.70, and rolls will range from $5.95 to $8.20 although there are a few rolls that go upwards of $11.50-11.90.
Authenticity: 4 out of 5 because after all, you do have sushi chef from Kyoto, Japan, Mr. Kazu’san himself. So it wasn’t an issue for me to ask for a saba, takuan, yamagobo makizushi without having to explain it.
On the downside: The first time here, I came during lunch and sat at the sushi bar. What I had ordered fell short of expectations (really bad, overcooked sushi rice), but I decided to give the place a second try because my options are very limited.
On the upside: places like Kazu would do really well in California where there’s a predominant amount of Japanese and Asian born customers who seek places like this out. Fortunately, I think a lot of the nuances of Japanese food are lost on diners who are looking for techno music, sake bombs, and a cool club like atmosphere. Instead, what you do get here are other cultured and cool people coming here such as on the second night I went, dude sitting next to me is a pilot and was with his hot Ukrainian date. During the night, he was able to converse in fluent nihongo with Kazu’san because he had lived Japan, sugoi.
10. Gyu-kaku – Denver (EDIT: added on 1/12/2021)
My #1 go-to spot to down a pitcher or two of beer with some grilled meat to seafood. Gyu-kaku has over 700+ locations worldwide, and this is the only Japanese restaurant chain in all of Colorado (Beard Papa, the 2nd Japanese chain from Japan just opened up on Colorado Blvd).
Type of food: this is the Japanese chain version of Japanese yakiniku which is grilled meat (to vegetables and seafood). It is also the Japanese version of Korean BBQ, but like with both the Japanese and Korean versions, they both have their large chains from Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (Korean) to Japan’s Gyu-kaku BBQ. Oh, and yea, this is not BBQ, it’s grilling but both the Japanese and Koreans can not get that right.
Price Range: the only reason I would eat at Gyu-kaku in Los Angeles was because I wanted to eat yakiniku with a large group, or because Gyu-kuku pricing is the best way to try Japanese yakiniku affordably. Not only are they extremely affordable (like their $12.95 to $15.95 lunch specials), but Gyu-kaku has a ton of incentives that you can participate through their app.
Authenticity: I liken Gyu-kaku to Denny’s when it comes to their ability to produce a chain version of Japanese yakiniku which can be interpreted as a bad thing although it is not. I mean it in a good way because this is the only Japanese restaurant chain in Colorado, and the only brand you will also find in Japan. Not to mention 700+ locations in the world.
On the downside: The downsides are only obvious if you have ever been to a high-end Japanese yakiniku restaurant which probably set you back a hundred to a couple hundred per person. So you will know, it is really hard to compare that experience with an affordable yakiniku chain like Gyu-kaku. I would also say it is unreasonable to also do that, but I will point out the only downside is proportionate to what you pay. So, what you miss out on, are high-end grades of beef to wagyu (Japanese beef).
On the upside: Since this is a Japanese based chain, the service is typically extremely good, as in quick. The front of the house staff share tips, so you will have a number of wait staff working your table which means, you are constantly being attended to (NOTE: during COVID, they are not able to work at full capacity although the service is still on the big upside).
- 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 (initially a copycat of Matushisa), and they act like the kid who’s trying to please their white friends (what a rant, and what I should say, Sushi Den does not suck when compared to all the competition).
- Tasuki (EDIT: 2/14/2019), 1575 Folsom St #201, Boulder, CO 80302. I have not been to Tasuki since being back in Colorado, but it has been one of the places I have wanted to go. Luckily, Chris McCown knows what’s up, and I have to add everything he cited in an email to me: “I’m not Japanese, but I did live there for a while, so I’m always on the lookout for authentic food like I had when I was over there, and Tasuki is one of the best in my opinion. The Head chef/Owner, Nobuyuki Kagei, has owned several sushi restaurants in his time, including Sushi Tora up in Boulder. He was one of the head Chefs at Amu for a while as well, before moving on to open his latest restaurant, Tasuki about 2 years ago.” He also adds “you have to check it out, great food, great atmosphere, very authentic with a lot of dishes that you typically don’t find in America, like Chicken Nanban, Crab Korokke, or Takoyaki. I know Chicken Nanban and Crab Korokke are more Yoshoku-style dishes than what might be “Traditional Japanese” but they are still very unique dishes that you typically only find in Japan. They also sometimes serve Okonomiyaki as a special, and even had real Japanese Curry a few times as a special (made from scratch Chef’s recipe, not from a box).” Thanks Chris.
- Osaka Ramen, 2611 Walnut St, Denver, CO 80205. if they can actually do a decent tonkotsu broth that isn’t salty AF (their possible misinterpretation of “shio” ramen?), this place probably has the best potential to reign supreme for ramen. Until that happens, other non-traditional ramen places will outshine them in taste and preparation.