Cafe Society

Super Bowl

Japanese rice-bowl joints are supposed to be fast, cheap and nutritious. If they were just fast and cheap, they'd be McDonald's. If they were just fast and nutritious, they'd be Juice Stops. And if they were just cheap and nutritious, they'd be U-Pick berry farms. You get the picture: Remove one element from the fast-cheap-nutritious formula, and a Japanese rice-bowl joint just doesn't work.

Larry Leith recognized that. And when he finally decided that the healthy fast-food alternative he wanted to bring to the masses was an American variation on the Japanese rice-bowl joint, he knew he'd have to follow the formula if he wanted to do things right. "It was March 13, 1996," Leith says. "I remember the exact date." That's because it was the same day he had to pay his monthly mortgage with a credit card. "Have you ever had one of those days where you were really scared? That was one of those days."

Before he made the decision to open Tokyo Joe's, though, Leith had given this first venture into the restaurant world a lot of thought. An avid road and mountain biker and former pro skier -- after college, he lived in Vail and competed on the pro tour for several years -- Leith was always looking for food that would fuel his athletic activities. "The bottom line is, most of the fast food out there makes your body sick," he says. "I'd been personally trying to find better food to eat, and I started thinking about how I could come up with a way to offer it in a contemporary sort of atmosphere that would make people of all backgrounds feel comfortable, but would also be affordable, so people could eat it a lot. And that's when I thought I'd give it a try."

Leith started out small, opening the first Tokyo Joe's at Dry Creek and Yosemite in Englewood in 1996. He waited a year before opening a second spot on East Evans Avenue, and since then he's added six more, all in the Denver area. The latest Tokyo Joe's, which opened this past spring on Grant Street just off 13th Avenue in Capitol Hill, is by far the coolest-looking. But all eight outposts have a similar, vaguely Asian feel -- sort of feng shui meets skateboard park, casual but stylish enough that the average geriatric diner feels hip rather than alienated.

Tokyo Joe's has more than good looks going for it, though. This eatery -- I ate several times at the Grant Street and East Evans Joe's -- has mastered the three crucial Japanese rice-bowl-joint elements. It's fast: The longest I had to wait between ordering and putting the first fork to food was seven minutes -- and that order involved six appetizers and five entrées, including a specialty bowl, which the menu helpfully warns takes a few extra minutes. It's cheap: Most regular-sized bowls run between $4 and $6 and hold enough food to satisfy most appetites; the priciest item, a big version of the salmon bowl, costs $8.45 but contains food to spare. And it's undeniably nutritious: Everything at Tokyo Joe's is grilled or steamed (no frying), the chicken is skinless, no MSG is used, and the sauces are based on simple, healthy Asian concoctions. While the bowls come with white rice, an extra forty cents nabs the healthier brown, and sixty cents buys you udon, the wheat-based Japanese noodle.

There's another bonus to Tokyo Joe's food: Everything tastes good. The recipes are all Leith's, and the result is no Taco Bell-type interpretation of Asian cooking. In fact, the salmon bowl would work in some of Denver's more frou-frou Japanese restaurants. The hefty fillet had been slicked with Tokyo Joe's teriyaki sauce, a thin, not-too-sugary mixture that soaked into the fish a bit and helped the grill turn the fish's edges into sweet little crispy crackers; inside, the flesh remained moist and slightly underdone. Tokyo Joe's way with meats was further displayed in a steak bowl that featured melt-in-your-mouth slivers of sirloin, as well as a chicken bowl filled with soft, tender bird. Even tofu got special treatment, with the big chunks of soybean cake sporting a light, golden crust.

The bowls come with a choice of sauces -- the aforementioned teriyaki, curry, oyako or Spicy-aki, Joe's trademarked spicy take on teriyaki. The oyako, the lightest of the options, tasted faintly oniony; it went well with the oyako bowl, a variation of the traditional Japanese dish that pairs chicken and eggs (oya means parent in Japanese, and ko means child). At Tokyo Joe's, though, the egg can be paired with chicken, steak, a combination of the two or tofu, and grill-caramelized onions tie the pairing together.

But Tokyo Joe's isn't all about bowls. It also serves up well-crafted sushi rolls -- including a California combo with a surprise shmear of wasabe and Joe's Roll, a delectable grouping of avocado, shrimp and cream cheese -- as well as gyoza stuffed with scallion-scented pork. We also munched our way through lightly salted edamame and a crunchy, freshly made sunomono salad of cucumbers and carrots soaked in sugar-enhanced vinegar. The only disappointment was the miso soup, topped with too much raw cabbage that detracted from the soft texture of the tofu in the creamy broth.

Over at Tokyo San, the Japanese rice-bowl concept doesn't translate nearly as well. While the food coming out of this small spot on Colorado Boulevard is certainly nutritious, it's rather bland -- and there's nothing fast about it. On two separate stops, both when the place was nearly empty, we waited almost half an hour to get our meals. Once, we'd ordered four entrées and two starters, but on the other visit, two rice bowls seemed sufficient to stop the kitchen cold.

That's not likely to improve unless Tokyo San hires more help. The order takers also cook the food, so after you order your meal, the employees scurry back to the kitchen to prepare it, leaving the next folks in line out of luck for a while. And the food just wasn't special enough to justify the slow and haphazard pacing. Our appetizers -- watery yakitori (grilled chicken and onion on a skewer) and over-fried, hard-bottomed gyoza -- came out after the entrées, which defeated the whole notion of starters.

Of those entrées, the best were the fish bowls: The salmon steak bowl contained a nicely cooked fillet barely covered with a teriyaki sauce in which we could discern nothing but sugar (the only other option was a ginger sauce); the yellowtail bowl brought a piece of moist, just-cooked fish so flavorful it almost made up for the scarcity of sauce. Even when there was enough sauce, though, the dishes had problems. The tofu bowl featured well-grilled pieces of tofu, but the ginger sauce was so bland we could hardly taste it. The curry beef bowl held just a meager amount of meat coated in a thin curry sauce that lacked the sweetness of coconut milk. The sesame chicken bowl was like no other sesame dish I've ever encountered, with just a few sprinkles of sesame and no flavor because there were no spices. The Tokyo San Special Udon Bowl was all pasty, gummy noodles -- obviously cooked ahead and reheated -- that had soaked up the teeny amount of whatever broth started out in the container.

At Tokyo San, by the way, those containers are plastic to-go vessels even if you dine in. You can add $1 to the cost of the bowl to make it "bento," which tries to pretty things up by adding a handful of lettuce leaves topped with a too-tangy vinaigrette and a smattering of fresh melon chunks. But that's not enough to make up for Tokyo San's failure to conform to the tried-and-true, fast-cheap-nutritious formula.

Tokyo Joe's bowled us over. Tokyo San bowled a gutter ball.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner