Regional chain Tokyo Joe's is economical but erratic 


If noted New York City chef Dave Chang helped Americanize ramen — and I'm not talking the industrial bricks that come cheaper than the Thrifty Nickel — then Tokyo Joe's, a Denver-based fast-casual chain, has brought it to the 'burbs.

That's not all the health-focused restaurant does, but a good portion of its menu is occupied by food that Flying Spaghetti Monster faithful would find fairly favorable. But fear not: When we're inside the packed dining room, with giant, red light coverings hovering overhead and Cyndi Lauper hollering about having fun, there's a bunch else that hasn't been touched by His noodly appendages.

Actually, in many ways, the chain is perfectly positioned in the market to introduce several aspects of Japanese cuisine at once. With regard to some of the food, though, we wouldn't want newbies thinking this is how it's done when done right.

For instance, noodles like those in the Classic Ramen ($7.50) were consistently soggy and unappetizing, some seeming like they came straight from a can of Campbell's. And while the teriyaki sauce covering the meat can help the bowl's depth of flavor, the chicken broth itself is pretty bland. For the rest of the toppings, I'd prefer the decadence of a soft-boiled egg, but others may dig the hard-boiled version, not to mention the snappy bean sprouts, water chestnuts and spinach.

But the white-meat chicken in this dish, and every other one we ate it in, is dreadful. It's slightly better soaked in soup, but when the cottonmouth-inducing slices stand on their own, like in the Ichigo salad ($7.95), peanut skewers ($3.85), or the otherwise delicious, assembly-required Joe's Lettuce Wraps ($9.20), they come off like that one killjoy who wants to leave the party early. The metaphor's particularly apt considering how amazing everything else in the Ichigo is: tangy cuts of strawberry; soft, pale avocado; dark, waxy greens veined in purple, all set off with lemon juice and walnuts.

To be fair, though, there are other laudatory things beyond the floor-level prices and natural-food aspirations: The hot teas ($1.70), like lemon rooibos or a firey, cinnamon Bengal chai, come in a neat Bodum tea press; the miso soup ($1.90), with organic tofu, has a richness that's hard to find at most sushi joints; and the eight sauces, be they Dragon, peanut or green curry, will rock your taste buds.

The latter comes on the creamy Green Curry Shrimp bowl ($8.45), which boasts not-insignificant heat, along with skewered tiger-shrimp that grow cold fast but deserve quicker consumption. A build-your-own bowl with moist wild salmon ($7.80), cool rounds of soybean, and the addictive, throat-lacerating Dragon sauce, is also a good bet.

And the sushi's reasonably priced, but our tofu basil roll ($4.95/four pieces) was wrecked, with rice spilling from torn nori. The North Nevada Avenue-specific Surf & Turf ($3.60/four pieces) held up better, with bits of steak, shrimp and avocado complementing the cream cheese, but the limp unagi nigiri ($3.70/two pieces) only tasted grilled in theory.

Two huge spring rolls ($3.99) offered a chance at salvation, their tacky rice-paper wrapping and hint of mint alluding to a good time, but one taste of Joe's Mai Tai ($5) kills any chance of that. Ours was so grossly sweet that we left it, and a lot of other stuff, unfinished, and couldn't help but wish for the real thing.


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