The big sign above the door at 3901 Tennyson Street reads "Tenya Japanese Soulfood," a somewhat confusing commingling of culinary styles that might have Berkeley neighbors scratching their heads. But it turns out that Tenya is tapping into a growing interest in comforting and booze-friendly Japanese cooking that, at Tenya, encompasses robotayaki (skewers) and small plates that allow customers to mix and match fried chicken, chilled salads, noodle dishes and other snacks that pair well with sake, beer and mixed drinks.
Tenya takes over the former home of Kazan Ramen Bistro under new owners. While Kazan lasted less than a year, the address is in the heart of the Tennyson Street action and has also held Axios Estiatorio (from 2011 to 2017) and Brasserie Felix (from 2008 to 2011). Co-owner Jimmy Niwa, who also runs Niwa Japanese BBQ in Dallas, says that he and his partners chose Denver and the Berkeley neighborhood because of what they saw as a growing interest in different styles of international cuisine here, and a young demographic that prefers to share a variety of dishes over drinks rather than sitting down for long, heavy meals.
Two things you won't find at Tenya are sushi and ramen. Nor are there large entrees; this is a hangout for izakaya-style eating, focusing on Japanese bar food that can be ordered in rounds and is generally fairly inexpensive. Niwa notes that izakayas are growing in popularity in the U.S., but many of them are fancier and pricier than their counterparts in Japan. At Tenya, the most expensive menu item (unless you order skewer combos) rings in at $14. Your bill could easily mount, though, after multiple rounds of house cocktails and high-end meats like rib eye ($14), New York strip ($14), pork belly ($10) or salmon ($11).
Instead, servers recommend mixing it up with a tart seaweed salad or kimchi plate, some karaage (fried chicken bites) or deep-green matcha soba noodles served on a bamboo mat with sides of dipping broth, minced vegetables and hot mustard.
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The robotayaki skewers are cooked over Japanese white oak charcoal, adding a char-grilled flavor to veggies — okra, shishito peppers and king trumpet mushrooms, for example — and meats, which also include shrimp, skirt steak and several different types of chicken. A few culinary terms to watch for: tare, a word for a sauce generally used for glazing skewers while they cook or for dipping once the food arrives at your table; yuzu kosho, a pungent paste made with citrus, chiles and salt; and furikake, a seasoning sprinkled over rice, fish or other mild dishes. Those pale-pink flakes atop your shishito peppers? They're bonito flakes (or katsuobushi), made from tuna that has been cured and smoked until it's so dry that it can be shaved over food to add savory, smoky flavor. You'll also see it topping takoyaki, fried spheres of batter filled with diced octopus.
Tenya means "heavenly shop" in Japanese, and is also a nice tip of the hat to Tennyson Street, which is rapidly transforming into a nightlife district where young Denverites bar-hop and sample food at several stops in the course of a night out. Japanese soul food should be a good fit for the area.
Tenya is closed on Tuesdays but is open from 5 to 10 p.m. every other night of the week. Call 720-535-7253 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.