Gil Asakawa was eight years old when his family moved from Japan to the United States. Soon after, the Tokyo-born author and journalist remembers feeling unaccepted for bringing sushi to school for lunch. “When I was a kid in third grade, I would have white kids teasing me and saying ‘You eat raw fish. You eat that sushi stuff. That’s gross,’” he says. “Now I bet those kids have their own kids and grandkids who eat sushi from King Soopers.”
Since then, Asakawa has watched the fare of his homeland—including specialties such as sushi, beef-topped rice bowls, and ramen—evolve from an unfamiliar cuisine to one of the most beloved in the United States. Asakawa’s latest book, Tabemasho! Let’s Eat: A History of Japanese Food in America, explores the subject by weaving his personal experiences into history lessons about origins of ramen, udon, and soba noodles (and what makes them different); how Benihana’s steak-slinging hibachi show ignited Americans’ love affair with Japanese-style meats; misconceptions about sushi and sashimi; and other delicious topics.
“I ended up researching and learning a lot of things that I didn’t know before,” says Asakawa, who was raised by a Hawaii-born father and a mother with roots in Hokkaido, Japan. “For example, salmon and tuna are thought of as the most popular sushi ingredients. But raw salmon wasn’t eaten in Japan until the 1990s. Before that, it had to be baked, grilled, or cooked because it [often] contained parasites… And as far as tuna goes, even in the 1960s, it was considered a junk fish, not sashimi worthy.”
Asakawa loves educating readers about the lesser-known origins of popular dishes and their evolution in America. But he ultimately hopes the stories spark conversation about cultural appropriation and inspire readers to seek out real Japanese food and brands produced by thoughtful makers and chefs, as opposed to ones that may fuel stereotypes or untrue beliefs about the culture. “If a company or restaurant is not really authentic—if they’re not respectful to the roots and the culture—then they’re just trying to take advantage of a fad to make a buck.” he says. “And there are a lot of those out there.”
Asakawa—who lives in Arvada with his wife, Erin Yoshimura, and works as an associate editor for New Hope Media—enjoys dining at local restaurants that honor Japanese traditions. Here, he shared an incomplete list of his favorites in and around Denver.
1. Izakaya Amu
1221 Spruce St., Boulder
The lowdown: “Izakayas are where many Japanese go to drink and have food as accompaniment. Izakaya Amu is right next door to Sushi Zanmai, the longtime popular sushi bar a block off Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. Zanmai owner Nao Kanda opened Amu as a separate establishment in 2001. It doesn’t even have sushi on its menu but instead serves up tapas-style small plates of delicious and authentic Japanese dishes. It’s a tiny place—a handful of seats at the bar to watch the chef at work, along with a couple of cozy tatami rooms for small groups—and it’s so authentic you must take your shoes off at the genkan or entryway when you step up to dine.”
What to order: “We’ve never had a bad meal at Amu but always order okonomiyaki.”
2. Ramen Star
4044 Tejon St.
The lowdown: “Owner Takashi Tamai worked in various Japanese restaurants in the area since he arrived in Denver two decades ago and opened this small, super-cool shop in the Sunnyside neighborhood in 2019. He makes his noodles fresh every morning.”
What to order: “House-made noodles—’nuff said. Get the ramen, though many of the sides are stellar, too. The house ramen, which boasts the eatery’s name, is a tonkotsu-style rich broth that simmers for long hours to allow the noodles to swim in a bowl with toppings, just like they’re done in Japan.”
2907 Huron St., Unit #103
The lowdown: “Standing in the shadow of Coors Field, Tokio was the first truly great ramen-ya, [a restaurant that specializes in the noodle dish], in Denver. Owner Miki Hashimoto is a veteran of Sushi Den who moved to Japan to learn the art of ramen before returning to Denver to share his life’s work. Oh yeah, Tokio has great sushi and a nice non-noodle menu too—but Miki-san’s ramen has been perfected over the years with constant tweaking and specially ordered noodles from the legendary Sun Noodle Company in California.”
What to order: “It’s hard to beat the rich umami of the pork broth of the tonkotsu ramen, but the Cremoso Diablo—which sounds like a Japanese-Latinx horror movie dish with cheese—is terrific. So is the miso black cod appetizer, which should be sold in a larger serving as an entrée.”
4. Sushi Den
1487 S. Pearl St.
The lowdown: “The Platt Park stalwart has earned its place as the premier sushi restaurant in Denver, with fish flown in daily from Japan’s famous fish markets. Den also has other dishes on its menu, and you can always wander down the block to visit its sibling eateries, Izakaya Den and Ototo [temporarily closed].”
What to order: “Sitting at the bar to enjoy the sushi platters is just a great experience because the fish is flown in fresh. My mom’s favorite dish of all time is chirashi, various sashimi scattered over a bowl of sushi rice.”
2390 S. Colorado Blvd. and 5535 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada
The lowdown: “Fast-casual Japanese restaurants like Kokoro rose up out of the departure of Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, a Tokyo-based chain that once had its U.S. headquarters in Denver in the 1970s. Mas Torito—the son of Mareo Torito, a one-time Yoshinoya manager who stayed in Colorado to open Kokoro—watches over the two locations of this reliable restaurant whose name means ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’ in Japanese.”
What to order: “The beef bowl is a classic, but so are its limited sushi lineup and selection of noodle dishes, including a terrific udon in authentic broth, which is called Splash and made with soy sauce and sesame oil; and a yakisoba fried ramen brilliantly called Sobaghetti.”
6. Osaka Ramen
2611 Walnut St.
The lowdown: “Chef Jeff Osaka runs an empire of eateries, including Sushi-Rama, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant with multiple locations, and Osaka Ramen, which serves excellent ramen in the RiNo district.”
What to order: “I get the restaurant’s rich and porky tonkotsu ramen, and their bacon fried rice, a very Japanese-American adaptation, makes for a nice side. I also like My Wife’s Donuts for dessert, which are mochi donuts dusted with kinako (sweetened soybean powder) that the chef has served since long before they became a thing.”
2501 Dallas St. (inside Stanley Marketplace), Aurora; 402 Marshall Rd., Superior
The lowdown: “Taiwan-born Charlene Thai went to college in Japan and is more Japanese than many Japanese Americans, including myself. Misaki in Stanley Marketplace is focused on sushi, while the Superior location—which reopened in March after a several-months-long closure following the fire that raged through Boulder County—serves both sushi and a select menu of ramen.”
What to order: “The tonkotsu is great, and so is the karaage fried chicken on the appetizer menu.”
8. The Enchanted Oven
520 Zang St., Suite M, Broomfield
The lowdown: Located near Flatirons Mall up the hill from Benihana, the Enchanted Oven is a godsend for anyone who craves Japanese baked goods including shokupan, the incredible milk bread that puts American Wonder Bread to utter shame.
What to order: “Owner Maki Fairbanks also sells savory pastries and a killer Japanese pork bun, and every Wednesday he cooks up a different bento meal to go featuring an entrée and sides for pick up.”
Honorary Mention: Domo Restaurant
1365 Osage St.
“Ever since a viral social media video posted last year resulted in hundreds of people waiting in ridiculous lines to dine at Domo, it’s had limited hours and seating and has been temporarily closed since early 2022. It’s a shame, because for decades Domo has served up a unique, country-style take on Japanese cuisine in a unique setting, with a Japanese garden, museum, and aikido dojo.”
Asakawa is also the author of Being Japanese American and The Toy Book, a history of baby-boomer-era toys. Tabemasho! Let’s Eat: A History of Japanese Food in America publishes August 30, 2022; look for it at local bookstores or pre-order here.
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