Food & Culture

The 2023 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, but in the last several years, I have stopped, although when I do, these are the handful of spots worth your time in the Denver Metro area.

Updated on: May 31st, ’23: sorry for all the grammatical issues, I got sloppy and my D+ average was showing.

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.

I held off from writing this blog post for the longest time because it means more to me than you will ever know.

Ramen is not just a bowl of noodles, it is like what “baby Yoda,” Grogu, meant to the Mandalorian.

If you are a not a Mandalorian fan (part of Star Wars), you have no clue what I said because you are unfortunately not an otaku.

NOTE: don’t expect content like EATER written by Brittany or Hunter because this is borderline otaku content (the Japanese defnition of otaku: a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture, like ramen, to the detriment of their social skills).

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 at Rakkan Ramen in Boulder, my favorite spot in Colorado. BTW, that is a tuna don, not poke (unfortunately, the noodle spots in Colorado think poke is Japanese, but it’s Hawaiian).

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 try to slip that little tidbit in random blog posts.

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.

Why so many ramen restaurants popping up in the Midwest and rural areas? Major food distributors are providing businesses with instant ramen kits (frozen stock, noodles, and toppings).

Sadly, it is the same way with pho, many restaurants are switching to instant pho broths.

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:

  • Top 14 Los Angeles ramen chains, my after the bar and hangover food.
  • SF Bay Area, the Bay Area in the 90s to 2010s suuuuucked for ramen, but it has recently gotten a lot better.
  • San Diego, a true OG ramen scene, especially at Izakaya Masa at 2am.
  • Portland, fusion and confusion cuz even their ramen has pronouns.
  • Seattle, my fellow Nikkeijin with non-food court sized Santouka’s.
  • Las Vegas, one does not just live on pho and bun bo Hue when off the strip.

I want to help shape the food culture of Colorado

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 a 3rd/4th generation Japanese American and Coloradan, and after living out of state for almost three decades, not much has changed for the food culture of Denver for Japanese although there are glimmers of hope.

The major reason is due to the dwindling Japanese American and Japanese population post WW2, and these are the 14 authentic Japanese spots in Colorado that help to maintain my sanity.

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.

I blog because Japanese food is not well-represented here in Colorado. Yeah I know what you are thinking, “There are a lot of Japanese restaurants here,” but they are as Japanese as Taco Bell is Mexican, and even Torchy’s doesn’t say “Mexican” anywhere because they know whats up.

Very few Japanese in Colorado

A contributing factor to the con’fusion food in Colorado is that you 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.

Pictured are fresh ramen noodles from Ramen Star. Ramen is a Japanese noodle and style of noodle soup in Japan (the only ones to include chicken and pork stock), although some American food producers think it means “instant noodles,” those silly goats.

Like Taco Bell, ramen in Colorado has few similarities to its roots/origins because it is a business, not a lesson in culture, foo.

The closest thing 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. – ingredients haphazardly added and like many foods, the toppings for ramen are regional).

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 results are nothing like the Japanese version that has created ramen’s popularity in the US because unlike Los Angeles, the bulk of the owners of the ramen shops in Colorado are Korean (Menya/Sukiya) and Chinese (the bulk of restaurants).

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,” *ahem* Corner Ramen). 

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 am more like that dude holding up his 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 people who care.

Those/you types are people who appreciate the diverse food culture of Colorado, and they are the people who enjoy learning the customs and history behind the dish. BTW, I want to support all the cultures and cuisines in Cowarado, then they would not be compelled to hop on any and every dumb food trend like mindless lemmings.

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 and rivalry tho, and you can 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.

Why does any of this matter? Because many brand their business as “ramen” or “Japanese,” which reflects on Japanese culture and is not just a business opportunity.

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.

Ramen in Japan, there are three Michelin Starred restaurants but expect to only pay $9-14 at Nakiryu or $9-12 at Soba House. Ramen does not have the pretentious persona it has in Colorado, a vibe where every Asian restaurant strives to be upscale (just look at every sink fixture).

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, why and WTF, bruuuh.

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, yet they charge more than a Michelin restaurant and they act like are making their stocks from scratch.

Americanized fusion style ramen

Ramen is often one item of many items such as sushi, eggrolls, kalbi, and 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 (Chinese), kimchi (Korean), poached egg (Martha Stewart?), and the use of beef. Many of these locations offer several items, such as sushi to poke, and are not limited to ramen.

Americanized ramen is often pretentiously and ridiculously 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 and legendary 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 in Japan or in California, they specialize in sushi, ramen, tempura, or takoyaki because they are hyper-focused on only that item.

Although large restaurant distributors started supplying instant ramen kits, there has been an explosion of American restaurants offering ramen, sushi, poke, and 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.

Korean galbitang and naengmyeon, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, Thai boat noodle soup, Vietnamese bún bò Huế, and Chinese chow fun, teochew-style, and many other noodle styles can be found in coastal cities in the US. Not so in Colorado, the businesses here all want to be Japanese and follow the trends.

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 (a Japanese American business, but I wanted at least two representations of Japanese-style ramen).

  • JINYA Ramen, LODO, (a Japanese American franchise with the franchise owner from Louisiana) JINYA really needs to be in the section below and in Los Angeles, it is at the bottom of my list of Los Angeles ramen chains.
  • Rakkan Ramen, 29th Street, Boulder (a Japanese franchise from Japan), my favorite and the only spot I go to in Colorado for ramen and a 40 minute drive is not a problem. Pro tip: get the shoyu ramen (amber).

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.

  • Katsu Ramen, Village East, Aurora, not my favorite at all for the ramen (it is all over the place and it is not reflective of Osaka or Kyoto style ramen), but I like them for the gyoza and the vibe.
  • Kiki’s Casual Japanese, University Hills, very basic homestyle ramen run by a Japanese/Korean family with a long history in the Japanese American community dating back to the 70s and Yoshinoya/Beef Bowl.
  • Osaka Ramen, Five Points, super salty ramen with a legit slab of chashu, and Jeff Osaka is very supportive of the Japanese American community, so a big thumbs up regardless.
  • Ramen Star, Sunnyside, the crew here are putting in the work, no slackers.

Japanese-American style food trucks and trailers

At this point with my photography, and all my mediocre shots, you probably would not believe that I have a massive portfolio of product photography under my belt (Google “Brembo GT big brake kit”).

These are two businesses owned and operated by a 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.

  • Mu Denver, a food truck, unfortunately the owner just recently announced they would be discontinuing their efforts.
  • Ninja Ramen, trailer (can be found at local breweries), a fantastic Japanese couple that hustles and there business is constantly growing.

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. NOTE: Someone was about to open a Silverlake ramen here in Colorado, but they pulled out, thanks pandemic.

  • Ajinoya Ramen, Virginia Village, yea, nothing to do with the not-so-good ramen chain Ajisen in California, but I was told by the staff, that the female owner was trained by “ramen master in NYC” (who? Keizo? This is hilarious tho because the NYC is not a city known for ramen like Los Angeles).
  • Domo, Lincoln Park, what an epic venue and there is nothing like it in all of California.
  • Izakaya Den, Platt Park, for a restaurant group from Kyushu, specifically Fukuoka, where Hakata style tonkotsu ramen comes from, there is no trace of that regional style here at all (nothing like Ippudo, Ichiran, or Ikkousha).
  • Kyoto Ramen, 16th Street, yea, no, and when your home country gives you low loans or free money to invest elsewhere (along with a trillion in loans to other countries), you come to the US to open a restaurant. Not a Chinese restaurant, but an instant ramen restaurant.
  • Kyu Ramen, Capitol Hill, they recently moved out of their Capitol Hill location, and they are further down E. Colfax (600 to 2205). I had high hopes for Kyu because they had some potential Nihonjin roots, but it is not apparent in the ramen unfortunately.
  • Menya Ramen, multiple locations, this is owned by a Korean restaurant group (JW/Seoul Hospitality Group) that has some amazingly good to great Korean restaurants in Colorado, but this is the worst ramen I have had. Menya, Corner Ramen, and Katana Ramen from back in the day in the Tenderloin, SF, are probably my top 3 all time worst ramen (I do like their friendly 16th street staff).
  • Miyako Ramen, Rosedale, the most shocking thing about Miyako is that they are Nihonjin (Japanese), and I came here with the owner of Sushi Co, but I would not come here voluntarily. The second biggest shock is the use of julienned carrots in ramen because of the influences of American Vegan influencers online. So avoid the ramen and come here for the curry, gyudon, soba, and gyoza.
  • Oishii Ramen, 16th Street, the same story as Kyoto Ramen.
  • Sakura House, LODO, well, ok.
  • Tatsu Ramen, University Park, I would really like to meet the owner here because I know they are not Japanese, but I can tell they try. I like everything I have had here, and I need to go out of my way to come here again, although I always end up at Yum Yum Spice where I am a regular at.
  • TOKIO, Ball Park District, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh yes, nanchatte tokotsu ramen is like Foo Foo Tei in the early 2000’s in Los Angeles, and I can appreciate that because I think everything Miki’san does is always at a higher level of capability than what I expect from Colorado.

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,” or have regional styles, but they are far from it. Also, the name is taken from a Japanese gyudon, not ramen chain).

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, but I leave it up to you what you want to experience.

All too many businesses in Colorado market themselves to be Japanese or authentic, and many are not and far from it (don’t fake the funk homie).

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 street pooky restaurants have sumo wrestler murals all over their walls. This is why decades later rural areas call teppanyaki “hibachi,” because of the misguided and uninformed businesses dictating the narrative.

sharing is caring
Instead of all these quasi-Japanese spots, I hope we can get to point where people do Thai, Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Cambodian, Laos, Filipino, and Vietnamese food, noodle dishes. If you agree, hopefully sharing this article might help, and we might get there one day.

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