Restaurant Business

A 70’s Beef Ban in Japan Led to Yoshinoya U.S.A. and What Would Eventually Become Kokoro in Denver, Colorado

If it were not for Colorado putting the “cow” in Cowarado, we would not have the Kokoro restaurant chain although before there was a Kokoro, there was Yoshinoya.

Yoshinoya, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, had chosen Colorado for its first venture into the United States in 1973. The 119-year-old company, well-known in Japan for its beef-based dishes, chose Colorado as its base of operations to procure beef. Unfortunately, the Japanese government put the smack down on beef imports which led to Yoshinoya U.S.A. having to turn to plan “B.”

This is the story about Yoshinoya USA’s entry into the United States as “Beef Bowl,” and how it led to the creation of the Kokoro restaurant chain in Denver, Colorado.

The main dish of both restaurants initially was gyudon.

What did Yoshinoya come up with? They opened their first U.S.-based restaurant, although since it was 1975, they decided at some point that a restaurant called “Yoshinoya” was not the best idea (good call). So they went with naming the restaurant after the literal translation of the dish they had specialized in, which was “gyudon” (“gyu“=beef, “don“(buri)=bowl), or “Beef Bowl.”

Photo Description: a picture of the first Yoshinoya opening up in Denver, Colorado in 1975.
You might be thinking that sure does look like Colonel Sanders on the left, but I’m sure he was off doing his chicken thing vs. being at the opening ceremony of the first Beef Bowl in Denver, Colorado in 1975. Image by Yoshinoya Holding.

1975-?: Before there was Kokoro, there was “Beef Bowl”

Gyudon is a dish that uses thin cuts of beef (a beef cut called “beef plate”) commonly used for pastrami. So if you are a pastrami lover like I am, you will love these soft ribbons of beef that Yoshinoya simmers in a lite soy-based soup stock served atop a hot bowl of steamed rice.

If you love Yoshinoya, you will know the Japanese chain is known for their gyudon which can be likened to soy sauce simmered pastrami atop a bowl of rice.

Photo Description: Yoshinoya Japan and their guidon.
This is how it should look because this is the real deal from Yoshinoya in Japan. The restaurant chain has over 3,300 locations in 11 countries. Image by Ocdp/Creative Commons.

I love a good pastrami, and I love gyudon done right, but for whatever reason, Yoshinoya eventually decided to get out of Dodge/Denver. When exactly that happened, I do not know because they do not openly tout that although my best guess was over a span of 11 years? (this is what the United States was like during that decade):

  • A span of time that occurred during the end of the Vietnam war in ’75.
  • In popular culture, the focked up racist caricature of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in ’61
  • The anti-Japanese movie “Gung Ho” in ’86 with a title in Chinese because Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese were all seen as the same (even nowadays, some people are still unaware of any distinction).
When you are drunk in Los Angeles, there are your restaurants in Thai town, your TJ dog vendors outside of bars, or an Alberto’s/Alfredo’s/Alerto’s chain. Except Little Tokyo Los Angeles does not have a 24 hour Yoshinoya.

1986-2018: Kokoro’s last 32 years

1986 is when Mareo Torito decided to open Kokoro, and he did that exactly where Yoshinoya’s Beef Bowl had been located. That should not be a big surprise because he was one of the original employees of Beef Bowl which was a job he had taken back in Japan to pay his way through college.

Yoshinoya now gone, Colorado luckily has Kokoro to fill that void that Yoshinoya left in its wake.

After Yoshinoya, it was not for some time till Colorado got another Japanese restaurant chain.

Throughout the years, Kokoro has done well enough to open a second, and a third restaurant, along with another successful business venture into food processing. The only hiccup for Kokoro came in late 2011 when they had closed their Broadway restaurant.

Presently, the original location in Denver off of Colorado Blvd., and their Arvada location are still dishing out teriyaki bowls, gyudon, and a number of other items they had added to the menu over the last three decades they had been in business.

2018 and beyond: the 80’s time capsule

I wanted to love Kokoro, but I can barely “like” Kokoro nowadays because they are a mere resemblance to what they used to be.

Back when I was kid coming here way back in the day, to the time my sister had worked here during her college years, or to when a friend had a job at the Broadway location, I had always thought of Kokoro as a decent spot for a quick bite.

Over time, Kokoro had unfortunately ventured off into becoming a heavily Americanized version of Yoshinoya, and I they are definitely worse than even Yoshinoya America.

A lot of great childhood memories of Kokoro.

Unfortunately, that nostalgia only goes so far, and I see this chain on a slow downhill spiral because they seem to only cater to a base of diners that I can guess are slowly dying off, literally. The “kokoro” or heart of this business it once had is barely a beating heartbeat, and I sense it is close to being put on life support.

IMG_4828

I may or may have not been to an adult bookstore before, but those heavily tinted windows made me think I rolled up into the wrong parking lot

Maybe they also have those heavily tinted windows because they either don’t want their pasty patrons to get any real sunlight or they’re trying to hide your identity from being seen from the outside?

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I didn’t want to include unsuspecting people into this shot, so I obscured their identities just in case some of them don’t want you to know they chew with their mouth open.

This is one of the features of Kokoro and Yoshinoya I love the most which is the seating layout. I don’t get why more restaurants don’t adopt this same layout?

“Splash,” “sobaghetti,” and even “beef bowl” are remnants of Americanizing their food to appeal to Americans who are more comfortable calling a dude “Greg” over calling him “Takeo.”

My dad is gangsta, he changed his name from Jack to Norio.
DSC07710.png
The usual suspects at a gyudon restaurants which are Mr. reddish-orange (beni shoga/pickled ginger), mr. black (shoyu/soy sauce), mr. red (not a usual suspect in Japan, but in the U.S., people know sriracha), and mr. speckles (shichimi togarashi/7-spice mix).

Typically I just use beni-shoga although when I’m feeling it, I just might use some shichimi togarashi, but the rest of the seasonings I would never put on my gyudon.

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80’s rock, old ceiling tiles, a seasoned staff with a couple young pups who were all very personable, with a number of regulars round out the diner like feel, minus being called “toots,” “doll,” or “honey” (maybe you’ll have better luck being called “hun.”)

You can always get an idea of the age of the owner of the business by the interior of the restaurant because it’s typically a reflection of them. In this case, moth balls and old person smell comes to mind.

DSC07704.png
Oscar the Grouch just might be under that lid.

They didn’t really need the lid because everything was served luke warm because almost all the item must have been pre/par-cooked which is why they’re so quick with orders.

It’s a shame that they have reduced themselves down to speed over quality and taste because that chicken wasn’t freshly grilled, and they fudged up using that cut of beef which is bland and lean AF (no longer the typical gyudon cut?).

DSC07716
We as a society and Kokoro need to learn to segregate our foods because some food should not be mixing together. #nofoodmixing

What you can’t complain about is that for $8.63 (including tax), not tip, that this is a decent deal.

You have got to be some super Americanized mofo with no sense or passion for food to let the food get this bad.

The Takeaway

I see Kokoro as a prime example of a business with no mission or vision statement, so you have a very weak brand. What that means, is that you have a business that hasn’t continually focused on their core menu, and they are too caught up with adding items in the hopes to stay relevant (while driving up food costs).

The most laughable aspect to that approach is that there are a number of competing “chicken, beef, and rice bowl” restaurants continually opening and expanding throughout the country, yet Kokoro thinks that they have to take on ramen and emphasize that they do sushi in order to appeal to their imaginary customer – I should point out that you will not find this menu at Yoshinoya in Japan or in California although the latter menu actually sucks (Yoshinoya U.S.A. is a joke).

Pros:

Very affordable and quick, but if that is not important to you, you just might like the seating layout like I do. I also still love this place because I go way back with it.

Cons: 

Food is a lot about the details, so when you don’t give a crap about the taste of the food, it shows. The only thing I think the management here is concerned about is “quick and cheap, minus the tasty,” and the “kokoro” (or “heart”) that this business once had is long gone. What exists now is a convoluted version of Yoshinoya Japan destroyed by Kokoro’s managements approach of “more items, the better” at the expense of the gyudon.

One Other Thing About Colorado’s Beef Industry

I had to research it, but Colorado barely ranked in the top ten as of 2014 for beef cattle although Yoshinoya chose Colorado back in the 70’s. Maybe that was when they were a bigger producer? Although what I did find out is that when it comes to exporting fresh and frozen beef in the United States, Colorado ranks fourth according to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

I also have a full write up on why I think Yoshinoya America sucks, and you can read that here.

I really do love Yoshinoya Japan and Asia, but the American side has been mismanaged.

Kokoro

Wellshire Plaza (Denver)2390 S Colorado Blvd, Denver, CO 80222
(303) 692-8752
Sun-Thurs: 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat: 11am-9:30pm
Arvada5535 Wadsworth Blvd, Arvada, CO 80002
(303) 432-0600
Sun-Thurs: 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat: 11am-9:30pm
www.kokororestaurants.com

Yoshinoya

Yoshinoya AmericaLocations throughout California but primarily in Los Angeles, California.
www.yoshinoyaamerica.com
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