The diner sitting on my left has stomach cancer and isn't sure what treatment he's going to try. The diner sitting on my right has a seventeen-year-old daughter who's pregnant.
Fifteen minutes into a beef curry bowl at Kokoro, and already I know more about these two than I do about some of the people I've socialized with all my life. Although my fellow diners seemingly have little in common, both have come to Kokoro for the same things: good food and a little conversation.
Since it opened in 1985, the Colorado Boulevard Kokoro has gained many fans. (A second site at 1600 California Street closed last year; another recently opened at 5535 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada.) Regulars sidle up to the counter and order a meal by its official number -- or they don't order at all, because the quiet, efficient staffers seem to know what the regulars want before their rear ends even hit the stool. You can sit at one of the handful of tables, too, but why would you? Talking with the rest of the customers -- as diverse a clientele as you're going to find in any Denver eatery -- is part of the fun.
2390 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Still, it's the food that brings people to Kokoro. The menu lists traditional Asian appetizers and salads, as well as eight rice bowls and two noodle bowls, and the priciest thing on the list is a "super" version of one of those bowls, which costs $6, tax included. Meanwhile, the regular-sized bowl, enough to satisfy one regular hungry person, runs just $3.68 to $3.98, which makes it a real meal deal. Granted, McDonald's is still cheaper. But consume too many Big Macs, and you're going to be one big Mac. Consume too many Kokoro rice bowls, and chances are your cholesterol will drop, you'll have more energy, and your fingers won't be so greasy. A Big Mac and large fries adds up to 994 calories and 34 grams of fat (don't even think about super-sizing it); a regular-sized beef bowl carries 675 calories but only 22.1 grams of fat. Go for the chicken, and you shave it down to 512 calories and 2.9 grams of fat. Rice is better for you than French fries. Need I say more?
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Okay, just one more thing: Not only is the food inexpensive and nutritious, it's delicious. The beef bowl features thin, juicy strips of tender meat, stewed in its own juices and ladled over impeccable rice -- not too mushy, not too dry, still steamy and ideal for soaking up beef juice. The chicken bowl boasts tender bits of bird coated in a teriyaki sauce that's a little too sweet but has a nice vinegary zing. And the vegetable bowl is as healthy as food gets: fresh snow peas, broccoli, bamboo shoots, domestic and Asian cabbages, bean sprouts and carrots, steamed just enough to bring up the color and flavor.
The Splash bowl, a relatively recent addition to the menu, contains those little pink-centered fish cakes you normally see in Asian noodle soups, along with fried tofu, seaweed, shiitakes (okay, you only get about one and a half of those), a hard-boiled egg and lots of noodles, all swimming in a broth that tastes of soy and sesame. It's simple, and it works. So does the "Sobaghetti," Kokoro's version of what we always called "basghetti" growing up, only we never used Japanese-style pan-fried noodles topped with succulent strips of beef.
Kokoro also offers those oh-so-trendy edamame, with a nice-sized portion for a good price (the salty little soybeans don't need the peanut sauce that comes on the side). While the sushi rolls -- pollock-packed California style, with avocado and cucumber -- can sometimes be smooshy, the kitchen does a good job with its gyoza, dumplings stuffed with chicken and vegetable bits and deep-fried so that they're crunchy all over, as well as shumai, little dumplings made from wheat flour that are filled with ground pork and vegetables and then steamed instead of fried.
But at Kokoro, you never need to go beyond bowls. And by the time my countermates and I scraped the last rice grains from the bottom of ours, we not only enjoyed a great budget meal, we were fortified by new, fast friendships.