Why aren't there more restaurants in the Art District on Santa Fe? While the RiNo Art District has become more of a destination for food than art, and other hip neighborhoods like LoHi and Berkeley have plenty of culinary attractions, this stretch of Santa Fe hasn't seen many restaurants open recently, much less succeed. But Rexyvan "Rex" Djuanvat is doing his part to change the district's dining scene for the better. This summer he opened Rocky Yama Sushi at 801 Santa Fe Drive, where iSushi operated from 2012 to 2018.
Djuanvat and sushi chef Luis Evangelista started talking about opening a Japanese restaurant together back when they both worked at the LoDo location of Sonoda's, which closed five years ago. After that, Evangelista moved on to Sushi Den, while Djuanvat polished his management skills at various eateries before launching his own place, Rocky Fin Poke Bar, on East Colfax Avenue.
When the iSushi space became available, Djuanvat sold his poke bar in order to open Rocky Yama, with a goal of bringing value to the neighborhood with reasonably priced sushi served in a relaxing atmosphere with an emphasis on hospitality. "We're not trying to compete with Sushi Den," the owner explains. "There's high-end sushi and value sushi, but we're still offering the freshest fish possible. We buy fish in small portions; it's more expensive for us, but it's good for customers. We get seafood in on one day, and we sell it by the next; after that, it's gone."
Djuanvat's wife also works the sushi counter and dining room alongside her husband. Rocky Yama is a family-run business that caters to neighbors, he says. And indeed, during one recent mid-week lunch, an older gentleman is sitting on a low wall outside the restaurant, enjoying miso soup and sushi rolls while his dog enjoys the summer sun; inside, a tattoo artist is just settling up before heading back to his nearby studio. A wooden sign on one wall, almost a work of art, announces the name of the restaurant; Djuanvat says it was made by a craftsman in Barcelona. On the opposite wall is a street-style mural appropriate for the art district.
A cozy dining room is tucked in back, while the sushi bar is front and center. That's where a pair of business types in suits post up for the sushi lunch special. They're the lucky recipients of samples Djuanvat is giving out of salmon done aburi style, where the fish is lightly marinated and then flash-seared over a charcoal grill. Many sushi restaurants don't even bother with aburi because of the extra time involved, and some that do use a butane kitchen torch to sear the fish. Committing to the extra effort and expense of using a charcoal grill gives the salmon a distinct smoky note while leaving the interior raw. Lunch guests can also partake in a midday chirashi bowl or sashimi special, allowing Evangelista to pick and choose from the day's best seafood.
While tuna and salmon are generally the biggest sellers at any sushi restaurants, other kinds of fish serve as good litmus tests for the overall quality of the seafood. At Rocky Yama, delicate red snapper (tai) is light and butter-soft, while oily Spanish mackerel (aji), which can break down quickly if not handled properly, is firm and meaty, with no telltale bottom-of-the-ocean flavor.
There are a few other items on the menu in addition to seafood. A homey chicken katsu comes with a crunchy coating and a tangy-sweet sauce with an umami hint of Worcestershire sauce; it's comfort food the way the Japanese do it best. Djuanvat also recommends his fried rice. "It's simple and something I enjoy eating myself," he says.
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Appetizers include fun bites like furikake fries, soft-shell crab tempura and baked mussels, and Djuanvat is also working on his ramen recipe. The ramen isn't there to win awards, just to cater to diners looking for something hot and comforting, and it's priced accordingly, at only $10 a bowl.
Sushi restaurants have become as much a part of the American restaurant landscape as pizza joints and takeout Chinese. Nearly every Denver neighborhood has its own sushi bar, and now Djuanvat has created one for the Art District on Santa Fe. The food may be Japanese in origin, but the owner wants Rocky Yama to feel like a part of Denver. Even the restaurant's name is a nod to the region, since yama is Japanese for "mountain."
But it's also a subtle nod to the Yamamoto Yama tea and nori seaweed company. Tin boxes of Yamamoto Yama rest on top of the sushi bar, each with the phrase "since 1690" printed on the side. The containers serve as excellent decorations, but perhaps they'll also work as lucky talismans to give Rocky Yama a little longevity of its own.
Rocky Yama Sushi is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for lunch, and from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. (10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) for dinner. And in a truly neighborly gesture, it stays open until 11:30 p.m. during First Friday art walks. Call 303-954-9562 or visit rockyyamasushi.com for details.