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By Lori Midson
I remember deciding, years ago, that sushi was the most perfect food on the planet.
3940 E. Exposition Ave.
Denver, CO 80209
Region: South Denver
Maguro sushi: $4.25
Maguro tataki: $4.75
Ama-ebi, uni, king crab and toro: Market
Miso soup: $2.95
Osaka roll: $10.95
Yellowtail and scallion roll: $4.95
Bear in mind that this was long before I'd actually eaten my first piece of sushi. And that this was coming from a kid who'd grown up in a blue-collar neighborhood in a blue-collar city where the only two acceptable options for the public consumption of fish were fried on a Friday and served with chips (a ritual of eating entered into like insurance — a tradition passed down through generations that protected against the eternal damnation of accidentally eating a cheeseburger on the day after Thursday), or charred to carbon on someone's backyard grill following someone else's (ostensibly) successful weekend fishing trip. This second presentation generally involved a very optimistic slice of lemon, when what it needed was last rites and a Christian burial.
Sushi was just not something you ate in Rochester, New York, even if you could find it. It may have been available (I honestly don't recall), but it certainly wasn't accepted. I mean, come on. Raw fish and rice?
But I'd seen sushi in a movie, maybe, or on the cover of a magazine at the grocery store: a plate holding a plain maguro hand roll with a single, tiny slip of chile set on the glistening pinky-purple raw flesh, a lonely slice of tekka maki that looked like a meat ruby held in a wadding of snow and wrapped in scaled paper, and a simple piece of ebi sushi, the pink shrimp's tail hanging limply over the back end of the perfect, smooth-edged rectangle of rice. I found everything about this plate to be both winsomely subtle and aesthetically intense at the same time: a thing of powerful beauty and limitless possibility of the sort I hadn't experienced since my desperate wanting for the Star WarsDeath Star playset with working trash compactor a few years before and wouldn't know again until I discovered girls a couple of years later and started wondering what they looked like underneath their clothes.
It was years before I finally tasted sushi — or what passed for it at the local grocery store — and although my first experience was disappointing, I kept eating it, searching for the ideal iteration of my fantasy in towns across across the country. And then five years ago I landed in Denver, where people have been eating sushi not just for years, but for generations.
Osaka Sushi is not an easy place to find. It's tucked into an odd strip mall off Exposition Avenue, invisible from Colorado Boulevard, invisible from almost any angle of approach until you're right up on top of it. Osaka has occupied this strange spot since 2000, when it was founded by Jessie Son and Young Joe Kwon. And in a city where sushi bars sometimes open, flourish, fade and close all in the space of a single season, their empty husks filled by dollar-scoop Chinese operations or payday loan outfits or even other sushi bars before the echoes of the previous inhabitants have died away, it's close to miraculous that the two of them ran it successfully for so long. But last October, after completing a slow transition of ownership, they gave the place over to Jay Chong and moved on.
Chong has made few changes at Osaka. It's still a sushi bar with a kitchen attached that focuses on sushi but also offers a small menu of other Japanese convenience foods — gyoza and donburi, yaki soba and bowls of multi-colored fish eggs for those who just can't get enough tobiko and ikura. The decor is simple — not as viciously spartan as at some sushi bars, but not a jumble of import-store knickknackery, either. Thanks to the fishbowl-style covered patio, it's bright, uncrowded and comfortable, even if it's beginning to show its age a little in the scuffs and dings and scratches of long service. There are piles of paper sushi menus and brightly colored fliers near the register, bonsai trees behind the bar and personal sake boxes, each made of blond wood and covered with doodles and the names of regulars, stacked like a child's blocks.
On the surface, Osaka could be any one of the dozens of neighborhood sushi bars in this town. It doesn't have a gimmick. There are no giant anime robots on the menu. The sushi rollers behind the bar don't scream when people walk in the door, do shots or tricks where they pull maki out of their ears or hide octopus in their hats. But its excellence reveals itself in small ways, in little moves and quiet moments, in the crowds that it draws.
At the bar on my first night here, a man I would've pegged as the kind of guy who, back in Rochester, would've called me a fag to my face if he'd seen me eating yellowtail sashimi, ordered in gentle, whispering Japanese without even looking at a menu. Dressed in a drooping Budweiser tank top, baseball hat and flip-flops, his shoulders sunburned, mustache damp with tea, he almost seemed to bow over a black plate on which the chef (a young kid, Latino, with a shaved head beneath his round cap and a shy smile) had laid out a fan of tako and surf clam, pinkish tai and white-fish sashimi, sliced paper-thin and served with ponzu — all of it snugged up against a mountain of daikon threads, a fall of pickled ginger. Two children climbed up onto the seats beside him to look over the top of the cold cases, point and giggle. When their parents called them back to the table, they scrambled down obediently and threw themselves into their own chairs, snatching up chopsticks and using them to stab pieces of kappa maki and spicy tuna roll.
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