Food Trucks

Umai Express Serves Japanese Fusion From a Food Truck

Spicy Karaage Chicken bowl with double fried crispy popcorn chicken.
Spicy Karaage Chicken bowl with double fried crispy popcorn chicken. Chris Byard
"My dad works in construction, and so I met Mike through my dad originally because they worked on the same project together. And me and him just kind of hit it off and became buddies," explains Nelson Henry, who launched the Umai Express food truck with Michael Spencer in May.

"Yeah, construction connects a lot of people," Spencer agrees.

Before meeting Spencer, Henry, a Colorado native, planned to study the culinary arts. "Out of high school, I got accepted to the Art Institute for their culinary program, and at the very last minute, I decided to back out because I didn't want all the student debt and all the loans and everything," he says.

Instead, Henry got his first introduction to the hospitality industry through Starbucks before turning to construction work, though he maintained his love for creating in the kitchen. "I always cooked, and I was always passionate about food," he notes. "I saw an opening at Sushi Den one day, and I was like, 'Oh, Sushi Den, I live right up the street from there.'" He started at the restaurant as a dishwasher but moved to the kitchen within a month, working his way up to sushi chef.

After departing Sushi Den, Henry helped one of his fellow colleagues get a new sushi restaurant in Aurora off the ground. "I did that during the first half of the pandemic, and then I just couldn't do the pandemic and food and hospitality — it was just too much," he admits.
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Michael Spencer (left) and Nelson Henry of Umai Express.
Chris Byard
Enter Spencer, who is originally from California but made the move to Colorado for the lifestyle and culture nearly twelve years ago. A true entrepreneurial type, he started his own engineering company, and later, found himself working with Henry's father, where the two crossed paths. But the politics and bureaucracies of the construction business left both feeling burned out.

Then Henry had an idea to make food and sell it to construction workers. "Then that idea kind of evolved into the food truck, and then we ended up just fucking putting it all in going for the food truck," Henry recalls.

"Here I am, formerly a structural engineer, and now I'm running the business end and marketing and sales in the food industry. ... I have a passion for an entrepreneurial sort of new business creation," Spencer adds.

Not surprisingly, the team's background in construction and engineering proved invaluable in getting their business started. They bought a trailer and used their combined experience to do the full buildout in about a month. It took just one more month for Spencer to secure all the regulatory requirements, a challenge that takes many new food trucks substantially more time. "Once we decided to do it, we did it," Spencer says.
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The truck's award-winning Umai Fries.
Chris Byard
Umai is the Japanese word for "good," which seemed like the perfect fit, Henry explains. Since launching in May, the team has honed its menu of Japanese fusion cuisine made with fresh ingredients. The partners are quick to agree on their favorite menu item, the Savory Beef Bowl (though the Spicy Karaage Chicken Bowl is a close second).

"It's New York strip steak marinated in a sweet, savory and delicious sauce for 24 hours," Henry explains. "The beef is thinly sliced and then drizzled with our spicy mayo and housemade katsu barbecue sauce, and topped with sesame seeds, green onion, red pickled ginger, nori and thinly sliced cabbage, all served over rice or yakisoba noodles.

Umai Express also offers a Teriyaki Vegan Tofu Bowl and a Crispy Pork Katsu Bowl to round out the main dishes. Don't sleep on the sides, though — especially the popular, award-winning Umai Fries, which are drizzled with housemade katsu sauce and spicy sriracha mayo, then topped with bonito flakes, green onions, nori and sesame seeds. Whatever you order, it will be a bowl that you will not soon forget, thanks to the bold flavors.

Currently, Umai Express is operating at various spots across the Denver metro area, but Spencer and Henry are working on landing a more permanent parking location in the Englewood area. Until then, the best way to find the truck is on its website. It also offers delivery via DoorDash, an ideal option as cold weather moves in for the winter. 
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Christopher Byard, a transplant from Alabama, arrived in Colorado in 2010 years ago and never looked back. Having previously worked at the Kitchen and Tavernetta, he developed a love for Denver hospitality. Currently, he maintains ties with the community and shares his love for hospitality as a co-host of the podcast Stoned Appetit.

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