The eel is the real deal at Kokoro

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Eel is my favorite protein, in an "if-I-had-a-last-meal-request-on-death-row" kind of way. I was very disappointed in the eel I tried at Tokyo Joe's, but at least my review of that sad meal inspired an insightful Westword reader to steer me toward local mini-chain Kokoro. And as it turns out, the unagi bowl there is the best and least expensive eel I've found in Denver.

Random Cafe Society fan: your next unagi bowl at Kokoro is on me.

See also: - Colorado-based Tokyo Joe's is a fast-food chain that needs to slow down - Kokoro closes its spot at Sixth and Broadway -Kokoro provides tasty, healthy Asian meals for veggie-lovers

Cheap, delicious eel is pretty hard to find -- the cheap part, at least. Eel is popular because ancient Chinese fishermen were marketing geniuses and sold it as a stamina-boosting food, and eel is expensive because it's complicated to raise. Unagi is a fresh water fish that lays its eggs in the ocean -- think of an eel life cycle as the opposite of salmon's. After hatching, the fry are net-caught and sold to unagi farms to grow to adulthood, become delicious, and end up being my lunch placed over a bed of rice.

Kokoro has been supplying eel-addicted locals since 1986, when owner Mareo Torito opened the original location at 2390 South Colorado Boulevard (there is a second store at 5535 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada). Today the Torito family continues to operate Kokoro, keeping the focus on healthy food, fresh ingredients, speedy service and low prices.

The original store on South Colorado is noticeably un-fancy and low-frills, with a strange, twisting, middle-of-the-room sushi bar flanked by tables and booths. The overall feel is of a low-rent Japanese noodle shop, with a simple menu of rice bowls, noodle bowls, gyoza, edamame, salads and sushi -- some of which is cooked, bah. There's an interesting (in theory) housemade green tea cheesecake, and ramune for the kids (or adults -- no judgments). The servers are hometown-diner friendly, and my fellow patrons at a recent lunch were regulars who made some excellent recommendations.

They pointed out that it was happy hour and thrust a cheapo sushi menu at me, so I ordered a tuna roll ($3), spicy tuna roll ($3), spider roll ($3.75) and unagi roll ($3), as well as my unagi bowl ($9.99) and chicken noodle splash bowl ($6.39). During a very brief wait for my meal, I watched a couple across from me feeding each other demure bites of the cheesecake, so I caved and ordered a slice ($1.79).

The meal was a gamble -- albeit a cheap one -- but I came out a winner-winner, chicken noodle bowl dinner. Everything was way better than I expected (I'm ignoring that small side of weird, sugary peanut goo that was supposed to be for the sushi). The splash bowl contained a savory brown broth filled with fried tofu, fish cakes, mushrooms, a hard-boiled egg, a healthy portion of crisp-roasty dark meat chicken (Red Bird!) and thick, moist udon noodles. The mix was so tasty it didn't need any doctoring with extra soy sauce, Srirachi or ginger.

The rolls were all liberally coated with that seasoned, seaweed-sesame rice shake, which actually added a good flavor layer rather than just being colorful and annoying; each roll had been cut into four pieces. The fish in the tuna rolls was fresh, melty and tasted like light seawater -- exactly as it should -- and the rice was just sticky enough. The spider roll had crispy-fried crab poking out the top and was texturally-satisfying.

I was saving both eel items for last, in case I ended up wanting to cry in front of strangers. The unagi bowl was rice-heavy and at first seemed to lack that good bath of brown basting sauce that usually accompanies eel, but I discovered that the sauce had migrated downward in the bowl, and a few fork-turns fixed that and created a delicious mix. The unagi itself was meaty with thin ribbons of crisp-chewy fat and skin, and had a fresh, salty, mineral taste. Kokoro doesn't include the traditional cucumber strands or any veggies unless you ask for them, but I was only interested in the sea-meat, and this portion was more than enough, and a deal at under ten bucks. The unagi roll was just as good, with bite-sized parcels of seaweed, rice and eel; it, too was a bargain.

Even the cheesecake worked. I've tried everything from bad green tea ice cream to worse green tea-infused cakes, but this crustless cheesecake was light and lemony, almost a gelatin custard.

Where has Kokoro been all this time? Right here, waiting for me to find it. And since both locations also have drive-thrus, I won't even need to put on real clothes or talk to anyone the next time I crave delicious, cheap eel.

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