A Taste of Japan
Japanese food in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon – especially in Denver. There have been restaurants but they were mostly eateries opened by Japanese immigrants for immigrants. After World War II, returning GIs from the Pacific who was stationed in Japan during the Occupation and the Korean War brought with them a growing appreciation for Japanese cuisine. But mostly, their awareness was limited to some basic dishes: sukiyaki, tempura, and teriyaki.
By the 1970s, there were still only a handful of Japanese restaurants in Denver: Fuji-En, Mandarin Café, Akebono and Kobe An in Lakewood were the main restaurants. For most folks, Japanese food was still ‘exotic’ or for adventurous foodies. Sushi wasn’t commonplace – sashimi, or raw fish, was considered weird and gross by many Americans well into the 1980s, even though early sushi restaurants opened in Los Angeles in the mid-‘60s. It’s hard to imagine today, now that sushi (not necessarily great sushi, but at least it’s sushi) is available in supermarkets.
But Japanese food began its slow road to becoming mainstream and family friendly in 1964, when an entrepreneur named Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki opened the first Benihana restaurant in New York City, in midtown Manhattan. The concept hasn’t changed much since: a chef (back then, most were Japanese and trained overseas; these days most Benihana chefs are non-Japanese) comes to your table and cooks your food in front of you on large grilling tops. They turned cooking into a show, performing with meats, vegetables, rice—flipping shrimp into your plates or stacking onions into a flaming “volcano.” Most famously was the steak and shrimp with veggies, buttery fried rice and a side of miso soup. These days they serve sushi, but back then they only served “teppan-yaki” (grilled) meat and shrimp. There are still two Benihana restaurants in the area: Broomfield near Flatirons Mall and Tamarac Square in Denver.
The first sushi restaurants in the Denver area were Sushi Tora in Boulder and Sushi Den in Denver. Both have spun off chefs who’ve opened their own shops. Meanwhile, other restaurateurs have arrived in the area and established fine restaurants serving Japanese food, with some specializing in sushi and some, more recently specializing in ramen, which has been the hottest Japanese food trends on the coasts.
Domo – “Country style” Japanese dishes from Akita prefecture in a unique country-style setting | 1365 Osage St, Denver, 80204, 303-595-3666, domorestaurant.com
Izakaya Amu – Traditional and modern Japanese small plates (no sushi) | 1221 Spruce St, Boulder, 80302, 303-440-0807, izakayaamu.com
Katsu Ramen – Aurora restaurant serving ramen made by chef from Osaka | 1930 S. Havana St. #4, Aurora, 80014, 303-751-2222, ramendenver.com
Misaki – Sushi and ramen at several area locations: Superior, Stanley Market, Denver, misakiatsuperior.com
Osaka Ramen – Authentic ramen in the heart of RiNo | 2611 Walnut St. Denver, 80205, 303-955-7938, osakaramendenver.com
Ramen Star – Ramen with house-made fresh daily noodles | 4044 Tejon St, Denver, 80211, 303-455-3787, ramenstar.com
Sachi Sushi – Unique small sushi bar and small menu of dishes at a counter inside Niwot Market, serves popular ramen on Sundays only | 7980 Niwot Rd. Niwot, 80503, 303-652-0238, sachiniwot.com
Sakana – Small family-owned sushi restaurant also serving ramen | 7520 Sheridan Blvd, Westminster, 80003, 303-429-6646, sakanasushiramen.com
Sushi Den – One of the first sushi restaurants in the area; also check out Ototo & Izakaya Den | 1487 S. Pearl St, Denver, 80210, 303-777-0826, sushiden.net
Sushi Zanmai – Same owner as Izakaya Amu which is next door, but with a more typical Japanese menu pljus sushi | 1221 Spruce St, Boulder, 80302, 303-440-0733, sushizanmai.com
Tokio – Sushi, ramen and authentic Binchotan grill in downtown Denver | 2907 Huron St, Unit #103, Denver, 80202, 720-639-2911, mytokio.com