If there’s one thing Denver’s culinary scene lacks in comparison to its coastal rivals it’s great late night food. Sure, there are plenty of pizzas, hamburgers and tacos you can snag while out at the bar, but come the stroke of midnight you’ll be out of luck— like a hangry Cinderella. This weekend, one new spot in the RiNo Arts District is offering a new solution to help Denver’s dining scene find its proverbial lost slipper.
Sushi Ronin — the acclaimed high-end sushi joint in the LoHi neighborhood — will open Izakaya Ronin on Saturday, December 2 in the Industry building. Formerly occupied by another Japanese-influenced restaurant, the short-lived Tengu, Ronin hopes to have more success with the Izakaya concept by also offering its popular sushi menu found in LoHi. But its real saving grace may be the late-night concept that offers a full menu starting at 10 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. in its downstairs bar (and the fact construction on Brighton Boulevard is getting closer to completion).
First, let’s get to the main attraction — the ramen. Coming in at an unheard of $10 a bowl, the Tonkotsu-style soup hasn’t exactly been a specialty of Sushi Ronin. All of that changed earlier this month when chef Corey Baker entered a Ramen Showdown that put some of Denver’s top chefs head-to-head in a ramen-making competition. Baker — who offered up a spicy version of what’s on the menu at the Izakaya —was the decisive winner. But even though Baker beat local favorites such as Uncle (which has been a top producer for ramen in the city since 2012) his winning dish wasn’t some hard-won recipe.
“I threw together the ramen in a week,” said Baker, who admits he initially forgot about the competition. He (humbly) attributes his win to his style of serving the ramen— which he says allowed the soup to remain hot. But for those who tried it, myself included, it was likely because his broth was saturated with layers of umami balanced by just the right amount of heat. For the opening menu, the ramen will offer the same broth (minus the spice) made with both pork and chicken topped with an egg and fried chicharron. The one catch? It’s solely offered on the late night menu. But it won’t be alone. Alongside it, you’ll find nearly 30 dishes on the after-hours menu including Izakaya classics like a Japanese fried chicken (chicken karaage), gyoza, tempura and yakitori as well as donburi (rice bowls) and a mini udon soup. Upstairs the menu will be “nearly identical” to Sushi Ronin. The offerings include sushi, salads, tempura options, noodles and soups, combination plates and rice bowls. A couple new items, such as Wagyu Culotte – a “Mishima reserve wagyu ultra beef,” seared rare and served with Shio Koji, wasabi oil and Yuzu Kosho – and Gindara Misozuke, a miso marinated black cod, will be offered. Like Sushi Ronin, Izakaya Ronin will also have a changing chef’s tasting and omakase menu.
When it comes to the drinks, the upstairs bar will focus more on sake and cocktails. On the list, you can find the tasty Paper Crane ($15) made with Hibiki Harmony whisky, Nonino Amaro, Aperol, lemon and yuzu ($15) for a balanced, herbaceous drink. Or you can try lead bartender Dusty O’Connell’s favorite Liquid Swords ($15) which is a take on a classic cocktail called “Last Word” and is made with mezcal instead of gin. Downstairs is where they keep the real stunners, though. Boasting one of the most extensive Japanese whisky selections in Denver, the bar is stocked with highly sought after bottles from Yamazaki including an 18-year ($65/ounce), the sherry cask ($375/ounce) and the Mizaunra cask ($400/ounce). Why in the world do these special whiskies cost so much? O’Connell summed it, saying when Japanese producers first started barrel aging these whiskies decades ago, the newcomers to the craft didn’t anticipate the overwhelming popularity they see today. This has caused shortages and huge price increases because making a 12 or 18-year whiskey takes time. But when asked how the bar plans to stay stocked with Japanese whiskies (without running out or making us all go broke), they argued that in response to the shortages the Japanese have become masters in blending. As a result, Ronin will be on the hunt for the best blends on the market. In fact, O’Connell explains that Hibiki Harmony, which is a blend of young and old whiskies, is still one of his favorites and comes in at a more affordable price tag of $16/ounce. If expensive whiskies aren’t your forté, try the barrel-aged cocktails that include an Old Fashioned ($12), a Manhattan ($13) and a Boulevardier ($14) for something a bit more regonizable. O’Connell will reserve one barrel for a rotating drink and will likely feature Japanese whisky, so keep an eye out for that.
Izakaya Ronin — like its predecessor Tengu — still faces some serious barriers to success when it opens this weekend. Intense construction on Brighton, which has plagued the area for the last year, has several businesses arguing it has seriously hurt traffic to this stretch of RiNo. Ronin is only a stone’s throw from a massive construction site — making the issue just that much more tangible. Also, the spot is tucked away in a relatively non-descript corner off Brighton — which reduces the likelihood of street awareness. But unlike Tengu, the team at Ronin invested in a sign. They are making it no secret that they are here and ready for business.
Editor’s note: Izakaya Ronin adjusted its opening times for its late night bar from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.
All photography by Brittany Werges.