Denver restauranteurs bring the world closer to home

As Denver continues to grow, so does its vibrant restaurant scene

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On a Wednesday afternoon, the staff are getting ready to open at 12@Madison in Congress Park. Music plays while Chef Jeff Osaka rolls out dough for a lemon dessert.

Osaka opened his first 12 restaurant in the Ballpark neighborhood on Election Day in 2008. Back then, the city was still a steak and potatoes kind of town, with few options for adventurous diners, he said. The location closed in 2014, and he opened the new one in Congress Park in 2016.

Over the years the city has grown, and that growth has brought in a more diverse group of people that are looking for a wider range in their cuisine. As a Japanese American growing up in Los Angeles, Osaka was one of those people. Back in California, Osaka tried food from around the world, including the ramen dishes his family would eat at home.

“People are starting to venture out,” he said.

Since he opened the first 12 location, Osaka has been building a miniature empire. He is now the chef at Osaka Ramen, three Sushi-Ramas -- with two more set to open, 12@Madison, as well as Tammen’s Fish Market in the Denver Central Market in the River North Neighborhood. His restaurants can be found across the city. He also has a Sushi-Rama in Lone Tree, with a new location set to open in Aurora by the end of the year.

Off of Broadway in the Baker neighborhood, Joseph Kim is also working toward building a restaurant empire. The Denver native opened his first Dae Gee Korean BBQ restaurant in Westminster in 2010. Since then, he has opened two locations in Denver, and a location in Aurora. He has two other locations lined up that are under construction: a second spot in Aurora, and one in Ft. Collins.

At the time he opened the first Dae Gee, which means pig in Korean, Kim said that Psy’s song “Gangnam Style” had just become popular. With a growing fascination in K-Pop (Korean Pop) music and the culture around it, Kim said the time was right to enter into the restaurant market.

But Kim has bigger plans than reaching the small population of Koreans in Colorado. He’s hoping he can use K-Pop’s popularity to bring its food into the mainstream. Eventually, he wants to bring Dae Gee to other states.

“(K-Pop) put Korean culture on the map,” he said. “We’re not trying to reach a small Korean population here. There’s a huge opportunity.”

Both Osaka and Kim had to start small. In Asian foods, there are some more exotic flavors and ingredients that Americans aren’t used to eating, Kim said. By taking something like barbeque which crosses both cultures, Kim said he has been able to educate people coming in to Dae Gee about some of Korea’s popular dishes such as bulgogi, marinated slices of beef or pork that have been cooked on a grill.

“I think that’s helped us tremendously to bridge that gap,” he said.

Osaka agreed. For restaurants it can also be expensive to bring in the more exotic menu items without knowing if locals will eat it, Osaka added, saying “there’s not enough of a native population to warrant that.”

But Colorado’s palate is changing. People have become more interested in international cuisines. This is a benefit for both diners and the chefs, Osaka said.

Chefs are beginning to push the boundaries when it comes to food. Even classics like French food are beginning to see a more modern resurgence. ChoLon has been serving Chinese-style soup dumplings with a French onion-style soup filling and gruyere cheese. The restaurant’s owner, ChoLon Restaurant Group is also opening a modern French restaurant next door to ChoLon on the 16th Street Mall.

Fusion foods are becoming more common, Osaka said. Chefs that started out making one food are starting to pair it with another. “A lot of chefs are diversifying their portfolio,” he said of the trend.

Location can also be a factor. Osaka opened Osaka Ramen in the River North neighborhood in Denver in 2015. Around that time, the neighborhood was beginning to become more popular. The neighborhood has restaurants from around the world, with few doing the same types of food, Osaka said. Even having an international airport can change the way people eat. With direct flights to and from places around the globe, people have many opportunities to expand their palate, Osaka said.

“It really brings the world a lot closer.”

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