Cafe Society

Yoko's Express is now Sakura House...and ramen is the new draw

I get pummeled on a daily basis (usually in a good way) with restaurant recommendations from friends, readers, strangers and chefs, most recently Wayne Conwell, chef-owner of Sushi Sasa. And yesterday, Conwell, during a conversation about sushi and Japanese cuisine, mentioned that Yoko's Express, a restaurant that occupied a storefront in Sakura Square for fifteen years, had closed, and that new owners Kimiko Watenabe and her husband-chef, Jun, had taken over the space and renamed it Sakura House.

But what Conwell was really itching to tell me was that the menu had expanded to include...ramen.

And ramen, at least for some of us, is the catchall comfort food, the Japanese equivalent of simplicity, where al dente noodles and steaming, long-simmered broth floating with fats and vegetables are punctuated with long and loud slurps from an appreciative audience.

Ramen is a culture in an of itself, and there aren't a lot of places in Denver that serve it, so when the opportunity arises to dip my chopsticks and ladle into a bowl of purposefully unrefined noodles and soup -- Japanese style -- it's a good excuse for lunch, and when I stopped by Sakura House today for a late-afternoon bowl, it was busy with besotted slurpers.

"Yoko retired, and we took over the restaurant in mid-September," says Kimiko, whose husband formerly sliced and diced raw fish at Mr. Sushi, a Japanese restaurant in Littleton. And while they left much of the prior menu untouched, they added six variations of ramen, including ma-bo ramen and a spicy miso ramen bobbing with strings of pork.

"We think people like ramen, but in Denver -- in Denver, there aren't a lot of places to get it, and my husband has been cooking ramen for a long time, and we wanted to share that with our customers," she says, adding that Jun "makes all the broths here, and you know, those broths are difficult to make. He has secrets."

You can see if she -- or Jun -- will spill them (my guess is they won't), but the broths are deeply-flavored, the miso milky and rich, the ma-bo ramen hued tar from the bomb of soy sauce. And if you're like everyone else who was here today, you'll likely slurp the bowls dry so that all that remains are their bare, white bottoms.

Sakura House, located at 1255 19th Street, Unit A, is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and for dinner from 4:30 to 8 p.m.; it's closed Sunday.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson