I am a 3rd to 4th Generation Japanese American/Coloradan, so I have the last three decades in and out of this state and Japan for comparison’s sake (I can also tell you what it’s like to show up to Samuels Elementary with a rice ball for lunch in the 80’s).
“If you have nothing good to say, just STFU,” which is why I held back on Colorado content and the Best Sushi in Denver list. Also, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gould, and the LA Times food critic, had never done any negative reviews. He never played the whiny Yelper complaining about the comfort of the chairs. Instead, he focused on positively highlighting the diverse food scene in Los Angeles by promoting places like Jitlada to Roy Choi and his Kogi truck.
If you are not feeling an Americanized hot Cheetoh sushi roll, I will be highlighting spots where you can try places focused on Japanese nigiri and temaki sushi.
So, I debated if I could do the same and produce a list that positively highlights and reflects Japanese food culture in Colorado. I hope I can, and it is time to kill that inner Yelper, and this keyboard unicorn will be shooting happy rainbows and sea urchin gonads into your ocular inputs.
You Do Not Have to Be Japanese to Own and Operate a Sushi Restaurant (and Colorado Exemplifies That).
Try taking an Italian out for pasta at Olive Garden, pizza at Pizza Hut, and coffee at Starbucks, all while touting that everything is just like Italy. That is how I feel when people tell me, “Colorado has a lot of Japanese restaurants.” It is just that the majority of these places are not Japanese.
If you name a restaurant “Okinawa,” Okinawa is like Hawaii for us Americans in regards to the culture. It also lies 400 miles South of Japan and is not known for seafood or sushi (taco rice and chanpuru are). Just like Hawaii is not known for cheesesteaks.If you would like to see what Okinawans eat (ryukyu ryori), Wikipedia as always comes through.
Unlike states with a large population of Japanese to Japanese Americans with legit Japanese spots, Colorado reflects the Asian population here. So what I have come across are all the sushi AND Chinese and Thai food restaurants. Oh, and poke is Hawaiian, not Japanese, so having sumo wrestlers painted on your 16th street restaurant walls is silly AF.
Japanese in Japan Are Highly Specialized and Focused on Only One Primary Item. Unfortunately, the Restaurants in Denver Try to Do It All From Sushi, Ramen, Poke, and Chinese Food (Jack of All Trades, Master of None)
In a homogenous country such as Japan, you are competing against other Japanese restaurants all doing Japanese cuisine. Many of which are multi-generational restaurants/chefs specializing in only sushi, tempura, ramen, to oyakodon.
The competition is so fierce that it may be the reason why Japan ranks 2nd for the most Michelin starred businesses from restaurants, hotels, to ryokans. The numbers are 293 in and around Tokyo and 300 in Osaka/Kyoto (based on the Wikipedia data). Also, these numbers do not include Bib Gourmand (if you are wondering, I found no bib gourmand or Michelin Starred restaurants in all of Colorado).
My Criteria and Who This List Is For
This list is for ALL THE RANDOM people I have met in Denver. They include the people who had lived in Japan, vacationed there, love Japanese food, or like one person who had stood in line with me. She and her husband had been in Japan during the rebuilding of Japan after World War II, and I met her when she was buying Japanese ingredients. These people motivate me because Americanized sushi might be tasty AF, but if you are down for authentic Japanese food and the omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) you had experienced in Japan, read on.
Visiting a Japanese restaurant, you hear ‘irasshaimase’ when you enter and thanked when you leave. It is part of Japanese culture and omotenashi.What is omotenashi, read the full article: Michelin Guide “Omotenashi: The Reason Why Japanese Hospitality Is Different.”
What I am looking for:
- Nigiri sushi: I like the style in Osaka, but edomae-style is Tokyo style sushi which is vinegared rice and the fish are often treated/aged. The style is highlighted in a documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” and if you have not seen it, do not expect anything close to the level of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Colorado. You would know that I am not exaggerating one bit if you have been to Japan.
- Pricing: my pockets can’t make it rain Benjamins or Jacksons for any Nobu, Daisuke, Carlos, Alizay, or Cristal, so I’ll warn you of the pricier spots. I have also edited this post and added some pricing, so that you can compare places on pricing (thanks Eiji).
- Sashimi to makizushi: starting off as a baseline, they have to at the very least do it as well as my obachan (grandmother) did, or at the level of my aunts or uncles trying to carry on the tradition of preparing futomaki and California rolls (that’s the Japanese-American side). BTW, I have no idea how this came about, but growing up in Denver, we used to eat maguro sashimi with lettuce which maybe was a daikon alternative?
- Kitchen menu: sushi bars in the States have to appeal to American diners, so I’ll also base things on the tempura, the teriyaki combo’s, to the kaiseki menu (yea right, no way, you will not find it here).
- Service and atmosphere: I have a design background, so I like design but the hunger from my chutoro belly covering up my 6-pack abs come first.
How I Categorize Sushi Bars
I like Taco Bell (Americanized), but eating legit Mexican food is a great way to experience the culture of Mexico, and the same goes for Japanese food.
- Japanese: the focus is on the natural taste of the ingredient (neta), and the vinegared sushi rice accentuates the flavor/umami and texture. Quality ingredients are critical, and sauces to toppings are minimal.
- Americanized: the focus is on rolls and sauces and sauces on top of sauce. The quality of the fish and ingredients is not very critical as long as there are strong flavors such as mayo, hot sauce, to eel sauce (the rice exists to absorb soy sauce).
Aside from a standup sushi bar, Colorado has a good offering of sushi bars, temaki, to fun kaiten sushi spots.
- Sushi bar (nigiri sushi): a Japanese sushi bar will be focused on just sushi although the vast majority of sushi bars in Colorado will have sushi, teriyaki, tempura, ramen, to Chinese, Thai, and Korean food.
- Temaki (hand rolls): in the US, Nozawa sushi has a chain of hosomaki/temaki restaurants in Los Angeles called KazuNori. A decade later this popular business model is spreading to Colorado.
- Kaiten sushi (revolving sushi): typically one of the most affordable ways to eat sushi, but it is also a fun way to eat it because your sushi rotates/revolves around the restaurant on a conveyor belt, train, to a waterway.
So Here Are the Best Sushi Bar Contenders
If you want to find a sushi restaurant in Denver closest to an experience in Japan, you have come to the right place. Also, if you are new to my blog, I do not do blatant puff pieces of just the pros and none of the cons, especially concerning Japanese culture.
This is no way meant to be a comprehensive list, but a selection of worthy contenders.
- Asa Sushi, DTC Blvd, Greenwood Village / American rolls with a side of shiguderi.
- Domo, Osage St, Denver / this venue beats most places in LA/SF, but it is not a sushi bar.
- Foraged, Blake St, Denver / odd hours, foo foo Americanized sushi, and staffing issues.
- Go Fish Sushi, Broadway, Denver / this restaurant group always has the friendliest staff.
- Hapa Sushi, multiple locations / inconsistency issues with fusion rolls of all kind.
- Iwayama Sushi, Simms St, Littleton / bro, this place could be good, but braaaaah.
- Izakaya Den, S. Pearl St. / not a Japanese izakaya and a carbon copy of Sushi Den.
- Kobe An, Milwaukee St. Denver / I have only been to their shabu shabu spot which I like.
- Makizushico, Platte Cyn, Littleton / nice co-owner, but the sushi is short on being Japanese.
- Matsuhisa, Steele St, Denver / the (Nobu) Matsuhisa family loves CO (Aspen, Vail, Denver).
- Rice Bistro & Sushi, Holly St, Greenwood Village / stick with the Chinese food instead.
- Sakana Sushi & Ramen, Sheridan, Westminster / This is the one spot I have not been to.
- Sonoda’s, Parker Rd, Aurora / A very old school spot that was sold off to a new owner.
- Sushi Co, Cherry Hills to Park Hill / have a drink and a bite for $20, a cool owner too.
- Sushi Den, Pearl St, Denver / the king of Denver and a must try spot out of them all.
- Sushi-rama, multiple locations / affordable kaiten sushi with a consistency issue.
- Sushi Ronin, Umatilla St., Denver / their izakaya was doomed to fail but a solid sushi bar.
- Sushi Katsu, Havana St., Aurora / surprisingly good AYCE even after the ownership change.
- Sushi Kazu, Arapahoe Rd, Centennial / bad sushi rice, but a lot of Japanese history here.
- Sushi Sasa, 15th St, Den / who hasn’t worked at Sushi Den, the staff here can attest to that.
- Sushi Tazu, Fillmore St, Den / used to be a great Japanese spot, but that is no longer.
- Tatsu Izakaya, S University, Den / decent, but more surprising is the nicely done yakitori.
- Temaki Den, Brighton Blvd, Den / newest of the bunch, but the owner/staff aren’t noobs.
- Tokio, Huron St., Denver / pinche Japonés sushi, ramen, to yakitori, aye way.
- Uchi, Lawrence, Denver / “Japanese inspired” cuz the whole Japanese thing is like popular.
The 9 ethnically Japanese owned/staffed sushi bars are Kobe An, Matsuhisa, Sushi Den/Izakaya Den, Sakana, Sushi Kazu, Sonoda’s, Sushi-rama, Temaki Den, and Tokio.
These are the sushi spots that I can not do without, and if they did not exist in Denver, life would suck for me. The ranking is in descending order from the best in Denver to a worthy spot to eat sushi. The first section is a quick blurb, a pic, pros and cons, and a sampling of their pricing.
The OG of the bunch is the Matsuhisa family of restaurants, whereas Nobu is the global brand with its partners Robert DeNiro and Meir Teper.
Nobu Matsuhisa is also the OG of OG’s, and his Peruvian influences and Beverly Hills location have been around forever (since 1987). He not only not surprisingly outlasted Miyagi’s (the old Roxbury) and the long-time owners of the 100-year-old Yamashiro in Hollywood (a Chinese hotel group purchased it for $40 million in 2016), but he and his fam just happened to choose Colorado to branch out too.
The first location was in Aspen, the second in Vail, and Cherry Creek in 2016. Now, in Dec 2021, I finally got my chance to visit their Denver location, and they are killinnnnnnnnng it! The SUSHI RICE is the best in Colorado, so any other effort they put in is just icing on the cake, which means they have a massive margin on the competition.
- Maguro MP
- Aji 12
- Kohada 10
- Uni (SB) 15
- Saba 12
- Anago 10
- Shirayaki 16
- Spicy tuna roll 12
- Sapporo 7
2. Sushi Sasa
I come here strictly for the sushi, and I steer clear from their fusion kitchen menu (not saying it is bad, it is just not my thing).
Sushi Sasa is no noob to sushi, and Wayne Conwell, the dude/owner has a veteran staff with a wealth of experience in and out of Colorado. It’s that crew that has me hyping them and why they have been at the top of my list for several years.
I also feel that they stand out from places like Sushi Den because they are a fraction of the size. Also, compared to Japan, many of the top sushi bars are tiny 8-seat sushi bars, although Sasa is still like 10x’s bigger than most Japanese sushi bars. They are also nowhere as large of an operation as Izakaya Den and Sushi Den.
- Maguro 9
- Salmon 8
- Yellowtail 8
- Saba 8
- Amaebi 9
- Ikura 10
- Spicy tuna roll 8.50
- Asahi draft 8
3. Temaki Den
Temaki Den is a hosomaki/temaki (hand roll) restaurant, not a full sushi bar. Except they offer a couple of standout appetizers (gome-ae a spinach and sesame-based dish) to some nigiri sushi.
Aside from torching everything, this spot is a standout on so many levels because sushi is all about the details, and they know those details. It comes through because what they do reflects their veteran roots/ties to Sushi Den (co-owned by the Kizaki bros, bro).
Also, tell me you are Japanese without saying you are Japanese, goma-ae on the menu says just that. Only Japanese restaurants and diners would know of this dish which is why you never see it at an Americanized sushi restaurant (vegan and vegetarian diners must try this dish for only $5).
- 3 roll set 5
- 4 roll set 19
- 5 roll set 24
- Edamame 3
- Spinach goma-ae 5
- Colorado sake co 6
The most round well-rounded of them all with not only sushi, but with yakitori too (I personally pass on the ramen).
Miki’san (Hashimoto) is also old school with a couple of decades under his belt, and it shows. You can see it in his sushi, but I got to call out his nicely done yakitori, which is also Americanized, although it beats all the other restaurants who attempt to do it.
The only funky thing about this place is the venue itself which is disjointed with a small sushi bar, a small dining area below, and an upstairs space removed from the rest. Except, none of this matters when you are here for the great food.
- Maguro 7.50
- Yellowtail 8
- Salmon 7
- Saba 7
- Ikura 6
- Inari 2
- Spicy tuna roll 9
- Sapporo 6/10
5. Sushi Den/Izakaya Den
Sushi Den has its influences from Matsuhisa, but Sushi Den has been a leader in Colorado for the last several decades (that is bragging rights that have been earned on their own merits).
I worked here for a short stint, about a year. I started in the front of the house (FOH), but I enjoyed the BOH a whole lot more. So I’m familiar with the operations, and even decades later, if you want to see the largest number of Japanese staff in a Japanese-owned and operated business, Sushi Den is that place.
Also, even with the decades of success Sushi Den has had, the owner, Toshi Kizaki, exemplifies the Japanese work ethic because he is very rarely ever not working in the restaurant. One example is that we would get excited when we heard he was not coming in, except he would come in to dine instead (WTF). You cannot say the same of so many other restaurants where the owner is never seen in the restaurant, especially back of the house.
- Maguro 9
- Yellowtail 9
- Salmon 9
- Saba 9
- Ikura 16
- Futomaki 12
- Spicy tuna roll 12
- Sapporo 7
6. Sushi Ronin
From a silly and failed attempt at an izakaya with teriyaki on a stick, the original location is far from being a hack attempt. The sushi bar and kitchen menu is a solid choice and one of the best places you will want to go for sushi to saba shioyaki (not yakitori).
I ran into an ex-coworker from Sushi Den at Izakaya Ronin in the Five Points area, and I was shocked at how bad the sushi and their so-called yakitori had been. It was one reason I stayed away from Ronin, although I also had another acquaintance from Sushi Den who was friends with a Ronin staff member, and we had all hung out together. Based on that experience, I wanted to go out of my way to give Ronin another try (the pandemic made that a bit of a challenge). Although lucky for me, I am glad I did because it is why they made it on the list, even with the horrendously old and dried-out anago (saltwater eel).
- Maguro 9
- Yellowtail 9
- Salmon 9
- Aji 12
- Saba 9
- Ikura 14
- Futomaki 12
- Spicy tuna roll 9
- Sapporo 11
This business uses Japanese food and culture to market their business, and their menu is “Japanese inspired.” Beyond the marketing, Chef Tyson Cole is talented AF and one of the only legit examples of Asian fusion.
In Colorado, Asians always get lumped in as one homogenous group, and Italians, Russians, to Spanish food would never get mixed together as fusion French food. Yet places like Uchi market their food as Japanese even though it is barely Japanese. The menu headers are omakase (“chefs choice”), agemono (fried), yasaimono (vegetable), to makimono (rolled sushi). Yet the menu is a mix of Asian cuisines from Chinese to Thai with some inspiration from Japanese cuisine, so why is this place not marketed as Asian fusion or Chinese or Thai fusion?
Regardless of their marketing, I suspect it might not be chef Tyson Cole but his marketing teams doing. So I will ignore that and say that their BOH staff and chef Cole have more talent than the vast majority who attempt fusion (no “con-fusion” in his dishes on flavor, just an overly appropriated reliance on Japanese culture to market the business).
I also have more about Uchi in a previous post: “I Had Avoided Uchi in Denver, But I Did Not Mind Trying Them Out During Their Happy Hour“
- Maguro 11
- Yellowtail 11
- Salmon 9
- Saba 10
- Ikura 8
- Engawa 14
- Kinmedai 16
- Akamutsu 32
- Uni (SB) 26
- Spicy tuna roll 12
- Sapporo 7
8. Sushi Co (Berkeley Park, Cherry Hills, Park Hill)
A temaki/hosomaki restaurant that was probably the first of it’s kind in Colorado and one of the friendliest places to grab a drink or 3-5 hand rolls from $15 to $23.
A business is always a reflection of the owner or management, and Sushi Co exemplifies that because I like all their staff. Combine that service with an affordable menu, a good selection of beer, sake, to Japanese and Taiwanese whisky, and you have a winning formula (you won’t have that same experience at KazuNori, but Clement Mok does throw down with their interiors).
The only cringe-worthy aspect is the stereotypical geisha murals all over the Park Hill location, which is cheesy. Those same murals are also all over Colorado, and they perpetuate the perpetual foreigner with such cliche and stereotypical geisha clip-art (what next, ninja and sumo?). It’s a shame it is plastered everywhere, versus the art of artists like Audrey Kawasaki (I have seen her artwork all over her mom’s restaurant in LA), to Yoskay Yamamoto, Darren, and Trisha Inouye, Kelly Sux (such epic work), Lisa Kogawa, and the talented and ex-Terrace House member, Lauren Tsai. All of which are positive/good examples. Yea, a few are $$$, but the point is no samurai and geisha crap, yet all are Asian to Japanese/Japanese American artists.
- 3 rolls 14.49
- 4 rolls 18.49
- 5 rolls 22.49
- Chirashi 15.99
- Miso soup 3.99
- Sake flight 13-30
- Reisling 9
- Chardonnay 12
9. Hapa Sushi
Another old school rolls/sashimi chain in Colorado with several locations throughout the state which is probably why they unfortunately suffer from inconsistency (the pandemic also does not make it any easier).
My most recent visit versus the last several times was a night and day difference, and I let the sushi chef know that. The good thing about that, is that he did not just brush it off, which says a lot about their staff being concerned about peoples experience. So even though this was a better experience, overall, all my previous experiences from Cherry Creek to DTC (never bothered with Boulder), has always been mediocre which I think is due to their size and scaling their operations/business.
- New style 11.25
- Salmon skin roll 8
- Orgasm roll 14.95
- Booty call roll 25
- Hamachi sashimi 14.5 – 27.5
- Spicy salmon roll 10
- Sake 4 -11
- Sapporo 5.5 – 7.5
10. Kazu Sushi
Kazu’san is originally from the Kyoto area, and he has been in Colorado for several decades now (Saito’san also works the sushi bar and was the owner of Samurai restaurant in the 80-90’s).
Regardless, if you are a multi-million dollar operation like Sushi Den or a small sushi bar like Kazu (the link is to my expanded review), the owners will always be in the restaurant. Except Kazu’san does it out of necessity, and he has been doing sushi for several decades.
His decades of experience are also why he has several tricks up his sleeve, such as an umeboshi (pickled-salted plum) dipping sauce for his hamachi. He is also no stranger to using mentaiko (spicy pollock/cod roe). Except the biggest downside is that he can not get the sushi rice right, but I do enjoy that he will have shiokara (fermented viscera, commonly squid) every once in a while. Also, I want to give a shout-out to Yumi and Yamaguchi’san.
- Maguro 9.70
- Yellowtail 9.60
- Salmon 9.40
- Saba 8.40
- Ikura 9
- Spicy tuna HR 4.50
- Salmon skin HR 4.10
- HH menu 1.95 – 3.20
- Canadian roll 8.90
- Sapporo 7
Honorable Mentions by Category
- Best AYCE: Sushi Katsu
- Best Kaiten: Sushi-rama
- Must Visit (at Least Once): Sushi Den and Izakaya Den
- Best for Large Parties: Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, and Domo
- Best Venue: Domo
- Best Value: Sushi Katsu
- Best Spin on Sushi: Domo
I also have the top Google ranking for the Best Sushi in Orange County (Los Angeles).
I never brought a rice ball again, and I went with the culturally acceptable Piccolo pizza sometime after. It was experiences like that I went through, yet flash forward a decade or two later, and every Tyson, Dick, Bing, and Quan are out touting they are doing Japanese food. Except, they are not. They want to cash in on being Japanese, and they want to be “upscale” and pretentious (the opposite of most Japanese). Yet they do not bother earning it, or learning anything about the culture, or how to spell “oshinko.” BTW, it’s not oshikko (they are pissing on Japanese culture, and it is suiting they spelled it that way).