Cafe Society

Fast Times

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan