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The Best Ramen in Denver by a Japanese American, a Ramen Otaku, and a Native Coloradan

From Japan and throughout the West Coast, I have eaten ramen for the last two-plus decades, and these are the spots I go to for ramen in the Denver Metro area where I have skin in the game.

I am a Colorado native, a 3rd/4th generation Japanese American whose great grandfather came here to farm, so countless Coloradans have felt the contributions of my maternal grandparents and family (the Nakata farm). Although, if you were to ask most Coloradans if they knew how many Japanese Americans were farmers here, most would not be aware of one, which is why I want to tell that story through this blog and the food in Denver.

I held off from writing this blog post for the longest time because it means more to me than you will ever know. Because ramen is not just a bowl of noodles, it is like what “baby Yoda,” Grogu, means to the Mandalorian.

If you are a not a Mandalorian fan (part of Star Wars), you have no clue what I said because you unfortunately not a otaku.
Photo Description: the shio yuzu ramen from JINYA ramen in Denver, Colorado. The bowl is white, two pieces of nori, green onion, spinach, chashu, and ajitama.
Chicken/pork based yuzu (a hint of citrus) ramen cuz ramen is not all pig bro. Image courtesy of JINYA.

Breaking Down How I Categorize Ramen Restaurants

If you ever ate bar food, you have had freezer bag food which is why so many places in Colorado now offer ramen, it is offered by restaurant suppliers in instant ramen form which is unfortunately nothing like real Japanese ramen.

All of my lists are broken down to help you navigate from craft ramen to freezer bag ramen in which I have everything categorized into upwards of five categories for Cowarado:

  1. Japanese Style Ramen
  2. Japanese American Style Ramen
  3. Japanese American Style Food Trucks and Trailers
  4. Americanized Style Ramen
  5. Americanized/Fusion Style Ramen and Noodle Soups

If you want to know how Colorado’s ramen restaurants compare with Japan and the top spots in 14 Los Angeles ramen chains (my after bar or hangover food), SF Bay Area (it’s gotten a lot better), San Diego (a true OG ramen scene), Portland (fusion and confusion), Seattle (my fellow Nikkeijin), and Las Vegas (one does not just live on pho and bun bo Hue when off the strip), I have a list for each city.

I Want to Help Shape the Food Culture of Colorado, Especially With Japanese Food

I have a cultural commitment to the food culture in Colorado because of my Japanese American background and Colorado roots. It is why I started this blog, and it is why I wanted to do ramen in Colorado, to try and shape and share my Japanese food culture in the state I grew up. I am and I feel that way because as a kid, nori (toasted seaweed) was often seen as “ewww,” like an episode of Fear Factor, and now it is on every corner. So I want to be that advocate for a Senegalese or Russian kid, exposing people to their food through events I hope to do soon.

I want to share my love for Japanese food and culture with my birth state because we Coloradans are cool AF (well, the vast majority of us).

Definition of an otaku: (in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.

I do it because Japanese food is not well represented here in Colorado. Yea, I know some people who may be reading this might be thinking, “there are a lot of Japanese restaurants here,” but they are as Japanese as Taco Bell is Mexican (even Torchy’s doesn’t say “Mexican” anywhere cuz they know wassup).

Very Few Japanese in Colorado

A contributing factor to the con’fusion food in Colorado is that you obviously do not have to be Japanese to own and operate a “Japanese” restaurant, which is why most of the food in Colorado is Americanized/fusion. Like Taco Bell, it has few similarities to its roots/origins because it is a business, not a lesson in culture, foo.

Photo Description: three fat slabs of juicy and tender pork chashu in a tonkotsu broth.
Oh my, slabs of tender pork chashu at JINYA Ramen Denver (braised pork belly and shoulder). The “cha cha cha” ramen.

The Closest to Japanese Ramen in the Denver Metro Area

Typically the noodle dishes here reflect the people producing them, so they are of several Asian influences and, unfortunately, recipes by amateur home cooks/influencers (raw spinach, enoki, corn, etc.). The results are nothing like the Japanese version that has created ramen’s popularity in the US. Not a shocker since most business owners/opportunists see ramen as a food trend to cash in on (a lot can’t even get the name of the dish right, and they call it “tonkatsu vs. tonkotsu“). 

A lot of you have traveled to Japan, visited a region/city with Japanese ramen, or you just might want to know what Japanese ramen is like, so I devote this list to you (now I know how Bruno Mars feels when he dedicates a song to a fan).

Except, I’m more like that dude holding up his stupid phone capturing the dedication on video.

Some of you may be like, “who cares, IDGAF,” and you do not have to care because this blog post is for the people who care. Those (you) types are people who appreciate the diverse food culture of Colorado. They are the people who enjoy learning the customs and history behind the dish (BTW, I want to support all cultures and cuisines, then they would not be compelled to hop on any and every dumb food trend).

The Differences Between: Japanese and Americanized Ramen

Just like politics, I will give the broad spectrum of ramen from one end to the complete opposite, as a summary – Hopefully without the tribalism/rivalry tho, just get in, where you fit it (like Too $hort said).

I would highly suggest checking out Ramen Heads on Amazon Video about ramen in Japan or follow Abram (Ramen Beast) on Instagram.

The reason why ramen is popular in coastal cities, is due to the Japanese and Japanese Americans carrying on that craft.
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Japanese ramen (focused solely on ramen)

Craft broth, artisanal ramen (noodles), and toppings that complement the broth (less is more). Also, a ramen-ya (shop) focuses solely on ramen, which in the Western world, a Michelin Star would epitomize/indicate the level and attention to detail to their craft. In Japan, there are three Michelin Starred restaurants. With all those accolades, $9-14 at Nakiryu or $9-12 at Soba House is all you will pay, ramen is not meant to pretentious.

Ramen pricing in Colorado is on par with San Francisco and New York which is ridiculous. In this state, they charge as much or more than Los Angeles and ALL of the Michelin starred ramen restaurants in Japan, $9-$14!

Ramen is far from being instant ramen in Japan, and it is why there are three Michelin rated ramen restaurants (Colorado/Denver has zero Michelin Starred businesses). Colorado’s ramen is closer to instant because it is.
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Americanized fusion style ramen

Ramen is often one item of many items such as sushi, eggrollls, kalbi, to poke: A mix of proprietary soup broths to instant soup stocks make up this category. As for the toppings, anything goes from a bukkake (mix) of traditional toppings all thrown together to Asian/fusion influences like bok choy, kimchi, poached egg, and the use of beef. Many of these locations do several items such as sushi to poke, and are not limited to ramen. Americanized ramen is often pretentiously priced from $12-18.

Photo Description: ajitama, Japanese ramen egg (you can see the dark outside egg from the soy sauce marinade) and the golden yolk oozing out.
The most iconic component of Japanese ramen is the ramen egg (ajitama/hanjuku is a 6-1/2 min cooked egg marinated in a soy sauce-based marinade), yet throughout Colorado, fusion ramen is doing poached eggs. This shot is from Kotoya in Los Angeles.

The Best Ramen in Denver to Fusion Noodle Soup Restaurants (They Are All Not the Same or All Japanese Ramen)

If you look at Japanese restaurants, they specialize in either sushi, ramen, tempura, or takoyaki because they are hyper-focused on only that item. Although since large restaurant distributors started supplying instant ramen kits, there has been an explosion of American restaurants offering ramen, sushi, poke, to teriyaki, as “just another item to make a buck off of.”

Everything is broken down in to 5 categories because I want to help the restaurant owner/chain producing their own proprietary soup stock from the restaurants using instant ramen and freezer bags for everything.

The reason why so many “ramen” businesses are opening up, “instant ramen kits.”

Japanese Style Ramen

These shops are the closest thing to Japanese ramen in Colorado, so I had to include Boulder because Rakkan is worth the drive to try a Japanese ramen chain with a plant-based broth (note: the overall bowl is not a vegetarian/vegan dish). The Denver option is JINYA, a chain based/founded in Los Angeles (it’s Japanese American, but I wanted at least two representations of Japanese-style ramen).

Japanese-American Style Ramen

Why do Japanese restaurants only specialize in one or two items? Because many of the components are made from scratch, and they do not rely on a freezer bag of pre-made components/products.

Japanese-American Style Food Trucks and Trailers

These are two businesses owned and operated by Japanese and a Japanese American. The unique part is that Ninja is like a Japanese yatai (food cart) in Kyushu, and Mu is a vegan/vegetarian iteration.

Americanized Style Ramen

With such a small Japanese and Japanese American population, adhering strictly to Japanese-style ramen or focusing primarily on ramen is sort of silly in a market saturated by Americanized fusion menu’s. The same would also go for doing only authentic Italian or Mexican food.

Americanized Fusion Style Ramen/Noodle Soups

The ramen in this category is a fusion mixture of Chinese, Korean, and Thai/SE Asian food influences (Sukiya may claim to be “authentic,” but they are far from it). As for why so many “ramen and poke” places are listed, poke is often confused as being Japanese even tho poke is Hawaiian, yet several 16th st pooky restaurants have sumo wrestler murals all over their walls.

Like with all food, it all comes down to what you like, regardless of whether it is Japanese ramen or an Americanized noodle soup. I also have a favorite in each category, and I think Uncle dominates/pummels its competition in its class.

Just do not claim to be Japanese or authentic, if you are not (don’t fake the funk foo).
Photo Description: I consider Rakkan one of, if not the best ramen in Denver even though they are in Boulder, hahaha. Pictured is their Shoyu Ramen with a tuna bowl (combo meal).
Like a sarlacc pit, I inhale my food although I don’t take a thousand years to digest my food (pictured: Rakkan Ramen). BTW, that’s a tuna don (tuna on top of rice, donburi).

Join Me to Help Shape Colorado’s Food Scene

Well enough of my rants, time for me to focus on promoting Korean galbitang, Thai boat noodle soup, Vietnamese bun bo Hue to the millions of Chinese soups that I LOVE. So if by chance you made it to the end of this blog post, and you also love the foods of the world, join my private groups/events on Meetup.com (or follow 303 Night Market on Instagram, or feel free to contact me). We will have these events at restaurants around Colorado to promote local and underrepresented cuisines reflective of our state’s ethnic population (not just fock’n “ramen”).

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