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Okinawa brings Japanese veggie options to the southwest suburbs

Michael Zheng opened Okinawa in late 2010 at 2301 East Colfax Avenue, in a spot that had failed before as a sushi joint -- but it's done well enough that Zheng opened another outpost of Okinawa in a strip mall at 12652 West Ken Caryl Avenue, in a space that was formerly the home of a Big Papa's BBQ.

The space doesn't hold the slightest hint of barbecue, though: It's been given an overhaul, with expanded seating in the form of spacious tables and deep, comfy booths. The walls are bright, with swordfish images embossed atop the glossy paint; one of the flat-screen televisions rotates images of sushi, while another above the sushi bar is likely to be showing a ball game.

This Okinawa was lively when we stopped in on a Friday evening, with families and couples popping in and out for take-away or sitting down for expansive platters of sushi. Although we couldn't resist ordering some sushi, the main event was the stir-fried yaki soba dish (which can also be ordered as a soup), with squash, broccolini, carrots, onions and other veggies fried up with extra-thin soba noodles and topped with pickled ginger and a smattering of dried seaweed. The vegetables were pleasantly firm; the noodles were perfectly cooked, neither soggy nor tough.

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Okinawa's vegetarian sushi options are impressive, and the restaurant thoughtfully separates vegetarian two-piece and roll orders from its array of fish options. The four pieces closest to the bottom of the photo are two-piece sushi orders, eggplant and avocado, and clockwise behind those are the asparagus tempura roll, the fried sweet-potato roll and an avocado roll. While all the sushi was delicious, the eggplant is definitely worth ordering a la carte; it's beautifully cooked and savory, not at all rubbery or slimy, and not something you can order at many sushi joints. The peanut avocado roll is another combination you don't see at many restaurants, but it's ingenious; the salty crunch of the peanuts combines nicely with the creamy richness of the avocado. To start, we tried Okinawa's seaweed salad, mixed greens topped with marinated seaweed and sesame seeds; it's definitely worth the slightly pricy add-on for a starter salad ($5).

Okinawa is open daily for lunch and dinner; call 720-981-9088.

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