The latest location for Tokyo Joe's is a killer. It's in the new Southlands Mall development, at the back of the so-called plaza that sits like a box canyon at the end of a natural retail bottleneck; buyers and window-shoppers, tourists and locals alike all funnel into this zone from the shops and wide boulevard above, half-blind from wholesale excess, wondering where they can eat. Their options are sit-down restaurants, a bistro, a Pizzeria Uno, a candy shop -- and Tokyo Joe's, the only fast-casual spot on these designer streets.
I've been to this Joe's twice, and both times witnessed the kind of chaos that would completely shatter any normal restaurant crew: dining rooms filled to double capacity, lines stretching out the door, crowds waiting on the sidewalks and absolutely no room to move on the floor. Like most of the other Joe's locations, the Southlands outpost is designed like a Ginza noodle shop with table seating; snaky, communal counters that run through cramped spaces along walls or around dividers; standing room for those in a rush, with narrow ledges for setting down bowls. As seen above and between all the bodies, the design is slick, urban-Asian minimalism, hip without being annoying, all organic curves and wood and steel. The TVs in the background usually show CNN and ESPN, sometimes movies, often cartoons, and the sound system plays non-threatening techno. A sign stuck on a post near the door assures potential customers that no matter how long the line might look, it moves really goddamn fast.
And that sign doesn't lie. When I first stopped in during the Southlands grand-opening festivities last month, the place was busy. Standing, I ate a grilled fillet of wild salmon broken over excellent sticky white rice with a sweet teriyaki sauce and was in and out in under twenty minutes. On my second visit, this time during a Halloween street festival, the place was flat-out insane. A record day, it turned out, and not just for that store, but for the entire chain: its best single day anywhere in ten years.
In between those Southlands trips, I visited multiple Tokyo Joe's locations, trying to figure out for myself what it was that this mini-chain was doing differently, what set it apart from other fast-casual concepts. The Colorado born-and-bred Japanese rice and noodle-bowl chain was founded by Larry Leith in 1996. Pissed off at the lack of healthy and nutritious food available to someone in a big hurry, the mountain biker/bike racer/pro skier looked around the landscape and saw a whole lot of McDonald's outlets, a whole lot of McDonald's clones, and not much else. Being the sort of guy willing to risk absolutely everything on what he thought was a pretty good idea, he scraped together every penny he could and opened the first Joe's at Dry Creek and Yosemite in Centennial that March -- putting that month's house payment on his credit card.
"It's an ugly American story," Leith says when I get him on the phone. "But it's true, you know? I don't know what I was thinking."
Then, of course, he goes on to tell me exactly what he was thinking: that he was "repulsed" by the quick-dining options out there ten years ago and surprised that no one had (yet) thought of doing roughly the same thing -- counter service, fast turnaround, low prices -- only better. Being a fan of healthy Asian-style foods and, in particular, the Japanese street-side noodle-house model, he figured he could do something similar, but skewed for the masses. Unlike most people who get these midnight brainstorms, Leith turned his into reality. And when he opened his second store, he did it on East Evans, within spitting distance of where Steve Ells had three years earlier started up a little experimental burrito restaurant called Chipotle with a loan from his dad.
The rest, as they say, is history. Chipotle now has more than 500 stores across the country. And Leith has opened fifteen Tokyo Joe's outlets without leaving the Front Range.
Everything on the Joe's menu is Japanese, or at least Japanese-inspired. Because this state saw an early influx of Japanese immigrants, Coloradans, and Denverites in particular, have been eating Japanese food for longer than almost everyone in the country (except possibly Californians), and so as diners, we're surprisingly comfortable with negotiating Japanese menus. Leith recognized this, creating a lineup that was a model of fast-casual styling, invented before there really was much of a model. The result is a roster that's slightly intimidating at first, but with a shallow learning curve and high interactivity. There are bowls, there are sauces and there are starches; you pick one of each. There are specialty bowls that can be customized on request. And then there are apps, sushi and salads. The customer chooses exactly what he wants, orders and then steps aside to wait for his meal.
At a busy lunch at the Denver Tech Center Tokyo Joe's, within five minutes I had perfectly steamed edamame crusted in salt, an order of gyoza with a side of the best soy sauce I've had outside of a dim sum restaurant, and a chicken bowl over buckwheat udon noodles dressed in curry sauce. At the second Tokyo Joe's, at Evans and Gilpin, I had a steak bowl with noodles in oyako broth that ate like a sirloin pho, packed with green onions, fresh broccoli, zucchini, carrots, snow-pea pods, red peppers and water chestnuts rough-chopped like a giant's brunoise. The meat was marinated, tender and cut large; the broth was meaty and deep, graced with top notes of soy and teriyaki flavors. On another night, I got grilled shrimp and veggies over white rice with Leith's trademarked "Spicy-Aki" teriyaki sauce -- sweet-hot, thick, smoky and as complex as the work done by any mad-chemist, OCD saucier in town. Sadly, I followed with green tea ice cream, which tasted like grass clippings run through a custard machine.
In the Roman armies of yore, each soldier was supposed to be capable of doing everything necessary to carry out a campaign, often far from home and regular supply: fire a bow, use a spear, swing a sword, ride a horse, dig a ditch, erect defenses, put up a tent, cook his own meals, repair and maintain his equipment, etc. Leith uses this same Romanesque training philosophy. Everyone at a Tokyo Joe's knows how to do everything and is expected to do anything whenever called on. His cooks can run registers, his grill men can roll sushi (though not always terribly well), his order-takers can expo, his runners can take orders. And at regular intervals -- usually every minute or so, amazingly -- someone will bounce out from behind the counter or grill and walk the floor, doing a quick turn through the dining room before returning to his post. On my first visit to a Joe's, it took me a few minutes to figure out what they were doing -- and then I noticed that every one of them was carrying a rag, cleaning as they went wherever they saw anything in need of buffing or polishing. "The few, the proud, the pierced" is what Joe's advertises for, and Leith gets all three. He calls them his army.
A great kitchen employee working in the low end of the industry is judged not by how well he (or she) can translate Bocuse, how high he can stack his food on the plate or how many ingredients he can sneak into the sauce. The true greats of the diner/roadhouse/tourist-trap/fast-casual set are judged purely on their "moves" -- how well they spin on the line, how many orders they can handle at once, total number of covers moved in X amount of hours. And though I don't know her name, her story or where in the hell she came from, Leith has in his employ one of the greatest expediters I've ever had the pleasure of watching work. In the depths of that Halloween rush at Southlands -- a hit so bad it made me nervous without even being behind the line -- she stood her ground, fighting to control an endless flood of orders. She moved so fast that her hands were tough to see sometimes, handling more simultaneous orders (both eat-in and to-go) than I could have at the height of my not-insubstantial chefly powers. It was a command performance, beautiful like I haven't seen in a long time, and she didn't bungle a single order -- at least not while I was watching.
My order included spring rolls -- chilled and not exactly well wrapped, but tasty nonetheless -- along with yakitori (grilled, not fried, because nothing at Joe's is fried), sushi (boring, and I tossed half) and a chicken teriyaki bowl. Like all my meals at Joe's, it came fast, cheap and (where appropriate) hot. And also like all those other meals, it was more than just satisfying. But the most impressive thing about that meal was Larry Leith, the owner, in there bussing tables in the middle of the siege.
"Everyone helps out and pitches in to do what's necessary," he tells me, laughing about that day and the numbers they did. He was bussing tables because the tables needed bussing -- because he was there and because everything else was being ably handled without him. "And you know what? I probably bussed your table, too. I did about three-quarters of them."
And that's why Tokyo Joe's works. Like his employees, Leith soldiers on, never willing to give up the fight.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.