While Kobe An Shabu Shabu in Lower Highland dazzles with tabletop cooking and fashionable fare, its forebear, Kobe An, has been serving more typical Japanese cuisine in Denver for decades. Now belowground in a Cherry Creek spot, where it moved last year, the venerable eatery puts out a surprisingly up-to-date $5 happy hour with even a few surprises.
Creekers may be packing into Hapa down the street, but Kobe An's space on Milwaukee Street has 36 years of history behind it. The family-owned restaurant began in Lakewood before opening the Highland hot-pot outpost and then moving to its new digs, where at first look there isn't much to distinguish it from the many, many other sushi bars in a four-block radius. Take the stairs underground and you'll be handed something that might help with that: a hearty happy-hour menu, served Tuesday through Friday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. With nearly twenty appetizers, cocktails, sakes and wines to choose from, all for $5, my anticipation heated up quicker than a carafe of junmai ginjo.
It may be the cheap stuff, but Kobe An's serving of Hakushika sake was the only logical opener for the evening. While draining my cup at the sushi bar, I noticed that there wasn't a single other patron in the lounge area. Early-evening dinner did bring a quiet audience to the low-lit dining tables and tatami tea rooms in the back. Lunch is much hotter, thanks to surrounding business traffic and a $10 lunch deal with bites of sushi, tempura, nigiri, miso soup and more.
The charms of Kobe An start to become apparent as you flip through the menu. There are family-style servings of sukiyaki ($28) and shabu shabu ($28), two eras of food crazes side by side. There's okonomiyaki, a savory, pork-belly-topped pancake that's hard to find in Denver, and a colorful tsukemono (pickled vegetable) plate ($5.50). The happy-hour menu offers everything from sushi rolls to panko-crusted potato croquettes. I felt a traditionalist bent, so I settled on an order of steamed dumplings stuffed with shee-mai pork. Five little pouches arrived, not so much carrying their load as forced around it. The expertly crisped bottoms popped as they were lifted off the plate —a good sound to hear — and the pork inside actually shocked me with its richness, added to a pungency brought by a ton of chopped scallions.
As orders slowly trickled in from the back room, I made small talk over Super Tuesday results with the sushi chef and watched the rolls come together. The sushi list isn't what you might associate with "traditional"; alongside simple salmon rolls and hamachi nigiri are dishes with names like Bronco and Las Vegas. The Hot Tokyo roll is on special, with eel, cucumber, cream cheese and jalapeños, all wrapped up, tempura battered and fried. The sliced-up log is then adorned with generous squirts of orange Japanese mayo and eel sauce. A $5 sushi roll is practically expected for a Japanese happy hour, granted, but this here is a real stick of dynamite, scarily indulgent, with fresh hotness under the batter. Even with so many cool things left to try, I savored this roll long enough to realize that I had to throw in the towel early.
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I'd love to visit Kobe An again; it's a fresh arroyo of reality in the existential strangeness of Cherry Creek North. With this much experience backing it up, this is one happy hour that doesn't have to be trendy.
Perfect For: Sushi beginners who still dunk their rolls in soy sauce. Experts should get a table in the back or reserve a tatami room, but the vibe is casual and accepting in the bar area.
Don't Miss: If shabu shabu isn't hip enough for you, both Kobe An outlets offer the soon-to-be-infamous ramen slider ($7). That's two grilled ramen noodle "buns" with a burger patty in between. I'm not too proud to admit it, but this is terrifying. So tell me how they taste if you're up for it; I'll be reading your testimony while peeking through my fingers.