I’m having leftovers for lunch as I type. Really good leftovers: ramen from Taki’s Restaurant, an inventive, unique and funky dive of a Japanese joint on E. Colfax Avenue and Pennsylvania in downtown Denver’s Capitol Hill district. It a block from the state Capitol, and three blocks from my office.
Ramen is relatively new to Taki’s. The restaurant usually serves udon, the thick Japanese noodle, or soba, the thin but brittle Japanese buckwheat noodle. The owner, Hisashi “Brian” Takimoto, who usually just goes by “Taki,” (I call him “Taki-san” out of respect but he’s too unassuming to think he deserves an honorofic and seem embarrassed by it, just began buying fresh-made and packaged ramen noodles from a company in California, and now offers it as an option.
We’ve been in an unrequited ramen mood for weeks. We’d heard that a new spinoff in Boulder of the great Amu (our current fave Japanese restaurant and itself a spinoff of Sushi Zanmai next door) called Bento Zanmai on the University Hill served ramen during certain hours. But we tried twice to go there and the place was closed. I checked a short list of area Japanese restaurants that serve ramen, and the only two candidates I found were in Longmont, a small town northeast of Boulder. The one place in the area thar’s known for noodles, Oshima Ramen in southeast Denver, had fallen off our list over the years for being expensive, less tasty than when it opened over a decade ago, and recently, kinda dirty (never mind Westword’s surpisingly naive rave “Best of Denver 2008″ award).
We’ll make it to Bento Zanmai someday — they serve ramen only from 3-6 pm weekdays, and from 11am-3 pm Saturdays (they close at 3 on Saturdays!) — but for now, I’ve been so desperate I made a package of instant ramen at home one night last week. It actually hit the spot.
So when we decided at stop at Taki’s for a bite the other night after attending a reception hosted by the Consul-General of Japan to mark the birthday (Dec. 23) of Emperor Akihito, we were jonesing. When taki came out front to greet us, we accosted him: “When are you going to start serving ramen?”
“I can make it for you,” was the reply. We almost kissed his feet. Well, not really. Have you ever looked at the shoes of anyone who works in the kitchen of a restaurant? Gross.
It turns out he’d just started serving ramen as a daily special. They’d stopped for the evening but he boiled some noodles for us anyway, and it was a real treat.
The noodles were served in a huge bowl with a soup base made with Taki’s packaged Ginger Miso, to which he added garlic, tempura shrimp and chicken pieces, tofu cubes, broccoli, Japanese eggplant and lots of edamame, or soybeans, and topped off with sesame seeds and a pinch of chili pepper powder. Taki has sold this soup with udon noodles every winter, with the name “Flu Killer Soup,” and it’s wonderful comfort food for cold gray days, or if you have a cold.
Taki’s is a favorite restaurant and a unique taste of Toko for being in Colorado. The restaurant’s been around for almost 20 years — first catty-corner across Colfax as “Golden Tempura Bowl” and then in his current location, on the northwest corner of the intersection.
The food is not typical of Japanese restaurants. in the US. Mostly, he hews to the healthy, and to unqiue, native ingredients. For instance, you won’t find breaded pork cutlets (tonkatsu) but you will find breaded chicken cutlets (tori katsu). You’ll find chicken or vegetarian Gyoza dumplings but not pork; the veggie ones even come wrapped ina yummy green spinach wonton skin.
He just recently began serving a limited menu of sushi (including California rolls, spicy tuna rolls), but this is not a tony sushi restaurant. Mostly, the dishes are huge servings of homemade, country-style comfort food like yakisoba noodles with stir-fried vegetables and meat, or a hearty plate of thin-sliced beef served with rice and lots of vegetables. There are several of those ubiquitous bowls made famous by Yoshinoya’s Beef Bowl (a chain that set up shop in the area in the ’70s and in fact had its main denver location in the very spot where taki’s is today) and carried on by a Yoshinoya’s local spinoff, Kokoro. And, there are a handful of tasty seafood dishes.
But Taki has a knack of taking mundane working-class Japanese dishes and jazzing them up. in His ramen soup, for instance, he insists on using Yuzu juice. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that tastes close to, but not quite like, limes. He irmports cartons that cost $50 a pop, and uses it in his flu-killer soup base. He stopped using MSG — s taple ingredient in Japan, believe me — long before it became hip for Asian restaurants to stop using MSG. He started adding edamame to his dishes and as an appetizer long before it became a hip snack food with non-Japanese. His walls are decorated with articles and posters about various aspects of healthy eating, and why you should dirnk green tea and east edamame.
And, he’s genuinely interested in the healthful approach to food, and to the creative interpretation of Japanese cuisine. Best of all, his food is cheap. You can get a boatload of food for around five bucks. You won’t find $20, or $15 or even $12 dishes at Taki’s. It’s an unassuming, simple place, with no fancy airs.
Taki has also been a pillar of the local Asian American Pacific Islander community. He’s donated food for many a meeting or event, and happily so. He’s generous to a fault. When we proteested his giginv us a couple of packages of his Ginger Miso and some Yuzu juice and even a bag of dried seaweed salad that he got from an importer, a customer who was waiting for his meal leaned over and said taki was always giving him extra stuff too.
That’s why I’m not surprised to look around at the restaurant and seeing what are clearly regular customers. The servers seem to know at least a few people at all times, and customers come in and shout their greetings to Taki when he’s in the kitchen.
There’s a sense of community at Taki’s. And a sense of authenticity. It’s a flavoring that’s so intangible that you can’t package it up. You won’t find it at the crappy fake Japanese chains like Tokyo Joe’s.
Taki’s is real. And that’s a very cool thing for Denver.