After 24 years away from my family, I came back to Colorado to spend time with them although it has been torture for me due to the food. Luckily for me, there are a few Japanese chains here to make my life in Colorado a whole lot more tolerable (I miss the women too, but you probably did not need to know that).
In Los Angeles, I would eat at a chain of yakiniku (Manpuku), an izakaya (Hachi), yakitori (Shin Sen Gumi), to sushi (my neighborhood spot was Shunka) restaurants daily/weekly. In between those spots, would be filled in with 1 out of 19 types of Japanese restaurants such as stuffing my face with ramen to matcha or hojicha soft-serve.
In Colorado, sushi is the most widely known Japanese food and, to some degree, ramen. Now you can experience the Japanese versions, which I feel will become the leaders in their respective segments (let me know what you think).Even after 20 years, I have not seen much change in Colorado for Japanese food.
In this post, I will try to have some restraint compared to the rants I go on with the 11 Authentic Japanese Restaurants in Colorado, best ramen in Colorado, to 2021 Best Sushi in Denver, Colorado. In this post, like Sgt. Joe Friday, you will get just the facts ma’am/sir (for John McClane, just the fax).
Japanese and Japanese American Chains in the Denver Metro Area
- Japanese: the business was started in Japan and headquartered there, but they branched out to the United States (a lot of them are global operations).
- Japanese American: they are typically first-generation Japanese Americans, and they started their operations here in the United States.
- Japanese-inspired: this is Colorado which are a bunch of businesses that are Japanese-inspired or what is generally referred to as “Americanized Japanese” food. These businesses are not typically Japanese owned or operated.
Cream puffs, Grilling, Sushi, to Finally REAL JAPANESE Ramen
I am sure the first Japanese restaurant chain to ever pop up in Colorado was Yoshinoya back in the 70’s. Except that did not last long (it did give birth to Kiki’s and Kokoro tho), and it was not till decades later that Colorado got some of my favorite chains.
I will also be using imagery by the chains below to represent their business.
Union Station / Cherry Creek
At an American steakhouse, you get one large slab of 1 to 5 types of cuts of cow. At a Japanese yakiniku (“grilled beef”) restaurant, you get the same cuts, and several more you did not realize were cuts (short rib, skirt steak, chuck rib, to my favorite, tongue), all served tapas-style.Gyu-kaku has 700+ locations worldwide.
The first Gyu-kaku (gew-kah-koo or in Murican, guy-you-cock-you) location in the United States opened in Los Angeles in 2001, and the Denver location in 2019. With the success they have had in Denver, next to Union Station, and even with the pandemic the last two years, they are now on their way to open a second location in Cherry Creek. It also looks a lot bigger than the Union Station location.
I have several other posts about Gyu-kaku, and you can read about My Initial Impressions of The First Gyu-Kaku 牛角 Japanese BBQ in Denver or how I think Gyu-Kaku Has One of the Best Lunch Specials in LoDo, if Not the BEST’ESS’ESS’SESSS.
Rakkan is a 100% Plant-based soup stock primarily of kombu, danko, carrot, onion, ginger, and garlic. Now, you might be thinking, is this a vegan/vegetarian? It is not, and there be animal parts in this ramen, and the broth is a tasty ramen stock on par with an animal-derived one.Rakkan has upwards of 10 locations in the United States and 7 in Japan.
My initial impression of their management is that they suck with people. Because on the day of my visit, they walked around chewing out their employees, which is something I do not think I have ever seen at a Japanese-owned ramen-ya (restaurant).
Even tho they were not busy at 3-4 pm, two people walked around attending to things, such as their HVAC due to the high winds or watching the fire raging outside. No greeting or acknowledgment you would come to experience in a Japanese ramen-ya (no omotensashi here).
The feel of being in a fast-food franchise was not a shocker due to each location being a reflection of the franchisee. It also may be something that Rakkan can not control? Although, what they can control is the quality of their product, and everything I had was good, a big thumbs up on the food.
In Los Angeles, I know the Hollywood and Highlands location went out of business (that is a tough location), but the one in the Little Tokyo Galleria seems to have been going strong since 2007.Beard Papas has 400 locations in 15 countries.
My ex is a patisserie in Tokyo who produces a lot of high-end cakes in Aoyama, Tokyo, and she’s also the one behind the Diamond Head puff at Kulu Kulu in Honolulu, Hawaii. So I have been around confectionary spots throughout California and Japan. Also, throw in that my mom is considered the “cream puff lady,” and you can say, I should know a good cream puff.
My moms’ food is just aighhhhht, but her cream puffs are above all others because they are bigger and fluffier, like a Cumulus cloud. The ones by Beard Papas and my girlfriend are more petite and denser. Except to be fair, I only had my ex’s cream puffs a couple of times (why does that sound perverted) and Beard Papas a handful of times.
Japanese American Chains
Here are two Japanese American chains in Denver that were both founded in Los Angeles, California, US of A.
Denver (Cherry Creek)
Peru > Alasaka > Beverly Hills > Aspen > Vail, and now Denver. We are EXTREMELY lucky to have Matsuhisa here in Colorado.There are 4 Matsuhisa locations in the US and 7 globally.
I just tried the Denver location, and I had only been to the Beverly Hills location prior. Now that I have been to the Denver location, I can say they are standouts in Los Angeles, and Matsuhisa is also the best in Denver and Colorado.
Many restaurants tout a “new style sashimi” or a “jalapeño and hamachi,” and if you love those dishes, you can thank Nobu Matsuhisa for coming up with them. You can also create it on your own because the recipes are available in his cookbook, published in 2001.
In the grand scheme of things, there is a reason why Nobu Matsuhisa has 11 locations, and Nobu Global has 13 hotels and 50 restaurants. The Cherry Creek location is a piece of that, and when you compare them with the 30+ sushi bars I have in my 2021 Best Sushi Bars in Denver write-up, you understand Nobu Matsuhisa’s success.
Denver (Union Station)
I was never a fan of JINYA in SoCal (I do like their architecture), and the one across the street from the Newport Beach Lamborghini went out of business. Not a surprise when Santouka, Toraji, to Yamadaya Raman were nearby.Roughly 37 locations in the United States and Canada.
I think the Denver franchise owner is out of Louisiana, and all of my experiences at this location have been great due to the people. Several employees have stood out here, especially Mr. “A,” the Italian dude from San Francisco. I think he lived there for 14 years, right on Columbus and Broadway (right away, I think of Sun Hong Kong, the Stinking Rose, and the Lusty Lady).
I speak so much about the employees because, like their closed Costa Mesa location, I only go because of the venue design and the staff (their Costa Mesa staff had a lot of people from surrounding restaurants).
I am not a fan of their ramen, and I find the flavors muddled and generic, which I am not surprised by that due to the owner. I see the owner and founder as being more business-oriented (franchising) rather than a food-focused individual. Except for Colorado, it is probably the 2nd best here next to Rakkan.