I'm slowly coming to the realization that the quality of a neighborhood sushi bar can be judged by the number of personalized sake boxes displayed behind the bar. Why? Because the sake box is a mark of dedication — like a gang tattoo or Heidelburg dueling scar — that shows someone has become a regular, has eaten at a particular place often enough to be recognized, has liked it enough to warrant a small personal possession being left behind in his absence. At Sushi Katsuya, I counted about a dozen sake boxes stacked behind the bar — not bad for a spot that's so young and still finding its footing in a difficult neighborhood. But the best proof that the sake-box system works is Osaka Sushi, which won my Best Neighborhood Sushi award in the Best of Denver 2008.
I stopped back in after news broke that the previous owners, Young Jo and Jessie Kwon, had been arrested for human trafficking. In 2006, Jay Chong bought Osaka Sushi from the Kwons (the restaurant has no connection with them today), and over the past two years, he's collected an impressive roster of his own regulars, with well over a hundred sake boxes now stacked like alphabet blocks on towering shelves behind the bar, all showing how much people appreciate the food, which falls into a weirdly liminal state between classic Japanese preparation and common American overindulgence. Sure, you can come here for tekka maki (always a good, simple choice), for uni and ebi and fat, red slices of maguro. The bar does good eel, too, and tempura sushi — not exactly traditional, but not exactly not traditional, either; kinda like Japanese junk food.
But it's when the chefs behind the bar get creative that Osaka shows its true colors, with a huge spread of combination rolls that go far beyond the California/Philadelphia/spider roll blandness and into some truly unusual territory. Last week, I went for the sensual roll: embarrassing to order, but so delicious with its combination of tempura shrimp, cucumber, inside-out rice and East-meets-Southwest shingles of sliced avocado that I order it anyway. I chased it with a round of tekka maki, then tried a zombie brain roll — tempura-fried maki, oversized and stuffed with tuna, tuna paste, crab, more avocado, more cucumber and lots of wasabi heat, then sprinkled with a blizzard of smelt eggs — that was less tasty than I'd hoped. But the specialty Osaka roll was wonderful for its overwhelming indulgence alone: maguro topped with crab laid over an inside-out vegetable roll speckled with white sesame seeds.
3940 East Exposition Avenue
While I don't (yet) have my own sake box at Osaka, I can see why so many others do: This place is just plain fun. It's comfortable and goofily unconventional, name-checking zombies on the specials board. And my order, as big as it was for a single man, barely scratched the surface of Osaka's large and ever-changing menu.
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