The explosion of ramen-ya in Denver within the last few years is surprising less for its suddenness than, perhaps, its lateness, considering the dish’s popularity and ubiquity in its birthplace across the Pacific and in other American cities, notably San Francisco and New York. But even ramen-ya are still vastly outnumbered by the wealth of exceptional Denver sushi-ya, a minor miracle considering our state’s distance from anything resembling a major body of water. As quintessentially Japanese as these cuisines are, however, the humble rice bowl, or donburi, is often overlooked in our culinary present. Invented as fast food for the working class of Edo during the Meiji Restoration—a quiet bowl of rice topped with simmered meat and vegetables—the variety of this simple dish exemplifies the creativity of Japanese cuisine. Whether it’s no-frills dining or something a bit more exotic, there’s a don for everyone, and here’s a list to jumpstart your search for the perfect bowl of rice.
Sakura House: Oyako Don
Where: 1255 19th St., Denver
When: Monday-Saturday, Lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner 5:00-7:30 p.m.
The Low Down: Such a short listing couldn’t hope to do justice to donburi’s diversity, but you can find a healthy selection of classic dons at Sakura House, a small mom-and-pop Japanese diner in Sakura Square. From the hangover-friendly gyudon to crunchy tendon (tempura), unagidon (eel) and even tekkadon (sashimi tuna), the traditional favorites are all represented. But there’s something acutely nostalgic about eating the appropriately named Oyako don ($7.50) in a small, family-run restaurant. Meaning “Parent and child bowl” in translation, the dish’s simmered chicken and onions topped with gooey, white and yellow tendrils of poached egg in a sweet soy sauce is not only a satisfying meal, but the dish also captures the warmth of eating around the family kotatsu. Sakura House may not look like much from the outside, but its simple take on Japanese comfort food is a welcome break from the rush of the city, and over the sounds of slurping noodles you might catch a party of regulars ask the young waiter to bring his mother over for a chat.
Aoba Sushi: Katsu Don with Curry
Where: 1520 Blake St., Denver
Neighborhood: LoDo / 16th St Mall
When: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 4:30 p.m.-10:00 p. m., Friday 4:30-11:00 p.m., Saturday 3:00-11:00 p.m., Sunday 3:00-9:30 p.m.
The Low Down: Styled less in the vein of Asian curry dishes than British naval stews, the thick, roux-based Japanese curry is a staple of home cooking and on-the-go convenience foods, like curry-filled buns. Aoba’s take on kare risu, the Katsu Don with Curry ($13) makes for a scrumptious lunch. Breaded, fried chicken cutlets with minuscule mushrooms, bell peppers, carrots, onions and zucchini swimming in delicious, comforting curry sauce sit over a bowl of soft, chewy rice. Only available during lunch hours, the dish is filling and satisfying for its wonderful mix of textures, from crunchy, juicy fried chicken, to crisp chunks of onions and rich, creamy curry sauce. Aoba also serves a rotating menu of special fish for its sushi, along with Kyushu-inspired rich and milky Tonkatsu ramen.
Domo: Spicy Maguro Don
Where: 1365 Osage St., Denver
Neighborhood: Auraria / Lincoln Park
When: Monday-Saturday, Lunch: 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Dinner 5:00-10:00 p.m.
The Low Down: Domo is as much a Denver fixture as any restaurant in the city, and has been serving traditional, precisely controlled Japanese food from its location off West Colfax for going on 20 years. The secluded, contemplative atmosphere—brightened by its lovely garden patio and deepened by its unflagging commitment to charity—invites a focused dining experience, and rewards a careful appreciation of their finely crafted dishes. Their donburi are a kind of contained magic. The Spicy Maguro Don ($10.50 at lunch, $21.75 at dinner) has heaps of thinly sliced, sashimi-grade tuna flavored with a light chili sauce, strips of nori, a clump of gari and a few fresh raspberries over sweet, vinegary sushi rice. The beauty of the dish is the mixing of discrete flavor profiles matched with a rich color palette—the deep red of spicy, melt-in-your-mouth tuna; the pale yellow and pink pickled ginger; the crisp green nori; the fluffy white rice; the surprisingly delicious bursts of sweetness from light red raspberries. If you’re still set on ordering ramen or one of their other noodle dishes, get a combination with a mini donburi of your choice for a few dollars more.
Miyako Ra-men Spot
Words by Brittany Werges
Where: 2950 S Broadway A2, Englewood
When: Monday, closed; Tuesday-Saturday, 11: 30 a.m.- 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
The Low Down: Located off a newly developed stretch of Broadway in Englewood, the recently opened Miyako Ra-men Spot is a well kept secret for south Denver foodies. Serving a diverse list of ramens including traditional Japanese Shoyu and Shio Tonkotsu as well as a Kimchi Ramen, Miyako also offers several donburis. Made with a perfectly cooked, slightly sticky rice, each don comes paired with a bowl of rich miso. For lunch, try the Ikura Salmon Don ($15.50) made with marinated salmon roe and sashami salmon. It is a little pricey but, it is perfect for those wanting an ultra-healthy lunch. For dinner and something with a little more flavor, try out the Maguro Zuke Don ($13) made with special soy sauce marinated tuna and vegetables or the Chashu Don ($6.95) served with house roasted pork. Also for the more adventurous, make sure to start out with the Wasabi Octopus Salad ($5.50), which is made with raw octopus—a delicacy you can’t always find in Denver.