Fast-casual Japanese food like rice bowls, udon noodles and simple sushi rolls at cheap prices, served in a compact bistro environment that encourages come-as-you-are, quick-service dine-in or even faster carry-out: That's a golden dragon of a concept. But the unfortunate reality I saw while recently having lunch at Tokyo Joe's was a mall food-court mess of noise, confusion and litter, with food that was barely at mall-food standards. The owner/operators of Tokyo Joe's need to slow down and take stock of how and why this Colorado-based chain got so popular so fast -- or risk getting unpopular just as quickly.
Tokyo Joe's was started in 1996 by former pro-skier Larry Leith, who wanted to create a healthy, fast-food alternative by offering simplified, inexpensive, nutritious Americanized Japanese items (effectively birthing the anti-McDonald's). The first two locations in the southern suburbs were so successful that today there are 24 Tokyo Joe's stores in Colorado. And that could be at least two too many.
Last Saturday I was walking down the 16th Street Mall when I spied a Tokyo Joe's. It was noon and I was hungry -- but I was taken aback by the scary-crowded dining area; the long, winding line to the counter; and the generally loud, cluttered atmosphere. Instead of going in, I headed for the Tokyo Joe's at 901 West Hampden Avenue in Englewood, thinking that location would be less insane -- but it turned out to just as nutty, uber-packed with a long-ass line, and so noisy I could have stood in the middle of the room and blasted an entire Pantera album on a boombox and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
But by now I was really hungry, so I got in line. During my twenty-minute wait, I had plenty of time to choose my order: pork and veggie gyoza ($3), a Joe's Noodle Bowl ($7.10), raw and seared tuna nigiri ($3.70 each), salmon and eel nigiri ($3.70 each), the Joe's roll ($6.10) and one roll each of spicy tuna, unagi, veggie and salmon. The cashier in the chaotic kitchen and counter area looked panicked at my order, and confessed that the sushi-rolling employee had done a no-show, so my food might take half an hour or more.
I assured her that I didn't mind, because I'm all-too-familiar with under-staffing problems. While I waited -- another 45 minutes -- I watched a staff that seemed to be moving as fast as it could, doing the best it could with an absolute glut of customers -- and the bodies kept piling into the dining room, where the line was consistently twenty-deep. At a restaurant this busy, adequate staffing should be a high priority -- and having more than one employee cross-trained to roll sushi would be a smart idea.
Still, if the food was good, I wouldn't have minded the wait. But the food was not good.
The gyoza were small, soggy and tasted like the inside of a refrigerator. The Joe's Noodle Bowl was a strange pile of overcooked udon noodles; undercooked edamame; a piece of flavorless, dry, shaggy white meat chicken, and a mess of red pepper bits soaking in a cloyingly sugared broth that made me thirsty. I squirted gobs of sriracha into the bowl, but even that couldn't balance out the sweetness. The nigiri sushi was warm -- which was okay for the eel, but not for the tunas or salmon. I gingerly took a small bite of each, and they all tasted like refrigerator, too, without a hint of the light sea water flavor that makes even average sushi worth eating. The sushi was dull enough -- and warm enough -- that I hucked the rest into the garbage.
Given the staffing problem, I figured the sushi rolls wouldn't be the tightly-rolled tubular slices you get at more upscale Japanese restaurants -- but these didn't look bad. Unfortunately, they didn't taste good, either. The spicy tuna roll was completely lacking spice; the unagi roll had too little eel and too much thick, gooey, over-sugared brown sauce; and the bits of mango in the salmon rolls were mushy and going off. And these, too, all had that same refrigerator taste that some foods, especially fish, pick up when they're either improperly stored (not wrapped well), or have been sitting around for too long. Even the veggie roll was lousy -- crammed with carrots and soft, watery cucumber slices.
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When Tokyo Joe's started out, the healthy fast-food/ fast-cazh niche was a lot less crowded. But while Tokyo Joe's may still be healthier than McDonald's, it is far less efficient -- and there are smart contenders coming on the scene every day. It's time for Tokyo Joe's to take stock of both its menu and its operations -- or risk being shot down by competitors.