I expected a lot from Osaka Ramen's new happy hour. Jeff Osaka's twin ramen-yas (in LoDo and Cherry Creek) claim to be "Denver's best ramen shop(s)." A bold claim, but it's no hyperbole; the steaming soups landed the duo on our list of the city's superior noodle houses. A previous visit told me that the diversity and execution of small plates was one of its best strengths. But I didn't know that happy hour here would also be one of Denver's best dining deals.
Attendance was light on a weekday evening on upper Market Street. Figures, as everyone else was enjoying spring sunshine, not drinking in a basement. For all the well-deserved coolness Osaka Ramen has basked in since rumors of its opening began, the interior is a bit charmless. (The newer Cherry Creek location is similarly spartan, but sunnier.) The menu hasn't changed much since this space finally opened last summer; the real surprises are in the daily specials and rotating ramen selections. But there's one more surprise for Osaka Ramen's freshly introduced happy hour, served Monday to Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. (3 to 6 p.m. in Cherry Creek): Rather than gin up new dishes, the powers-that-be slashed the price of all small plates and some drinks in half. If you haven't found a reason to visit yet, here it is.
It has always been possible to make a nice dinner out of Osaka's small plates — encouraged, even. The namesake ramen had established itself as a must-try, but the list of appetizers shows the creativity that chef Jeff Osaka demonstrated down the street at his first Denver dining destination, Twelve. Cold, warm, salty, funky: all the tastebuds are activated, especially the sense of umami. Grab your chopsticks and tug at the tower of saturated fat that is the Okonomiyaki fries ($3), shoestring potatoes dressed with brown yaki sauce, kewpie mayo, a flurry of furikake and a school's worth of bonito flakes. Think of it as poutine, combined with the "put whatever the hell you want on it" philosophy of teppanyaki. It's almost too much to reckon with, physically and mentally. The standard is set for Godzilla-sized portions, in inverse proportion to price.
The long, narrow dining room with a mural of the Tokyo skyline.
Thankfully, there are lighter selections to cleanse the palate and allay your guilt. The green beans ($2.50) rely more on the texture and crispness of chilled haricots verts than an overload of shoyu dressing. The Osaka salad ($1.50) and chilled tofu ($2.50) would also serve as fine interludes, if you want to keep things slightly healthy. We didn't. Next up is the chicken kara-age ($3.50), one of the city's finest examples of Japanese fried chicken. This citrus-marinated, potato-starch-crusted thigh meat is divine, with some chicken-skin cracklins added for good measure.
Quickly now, before you hesitate, dig into bacon fried rice ($3), one of Osaka Ramen's biggest stars. A simple, messy snack, the rice is enlivened with shoyu and thick lardons, plus a Dalí-esque soft-boiled egg. And ounce for ounce, a $3 bowl of curry might be the best value on the table, a brown elixir poured over a mound of rice, given added meaning with tangy crimson pickles. I later discovered that these beautiful slices are called fukujinzuke (a wonderful word to say or type).
Bacon fried rice — three magical words from Osaka Ramen.
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With only an hour to get your swerve on in RiNo, you can probably only grab one to two bottles of Orion rice lager or cans of Infinite Monkey Theorem dry-hopped cider for half off ($3 and $2.50, respectively). That changes the pace from the typical happy-hour drink-a-thon. And while the kitchen should be commended for its creativity and handling with these small plates, I'll note that none of them cost over $3.50, making Osaka Ramen one of the best happy-hour deals around, whether for pre-ramen foreplay or a dinner in itself. Being cool has rarely been this cheap.
Don't Miss: Discussions about Osaka Ramen usually end with a reminiscing on My Wife's Donuts ($7) — as do most meals. Unruly-looking things created from housemade mochi and plated with salted butter, they're sure to stimulate a conversation.