Shall we begin with Grogu?
Yeah, the cute, meme-fodder Baby Yoda fella from The Mandalorian. At Tokki, the stylish new Korean/Japanese small plate/cocktail lounge that took over the former Motif jazz club, Grogu is a cocktail. Seriously — looks just like him. Pictures will be taken; Instagram flooded by The Force.
Jami Choe — wife of co-owner Peter Choe, operator at Red Rock Liquors and a veteran bartender and sommelier — created this Grogu (I’ve since found other clever renditions online) and most of Tokki’s cocktail menu. To capture the likeness, she mixed Buffalo Trace’s Wheatley Vodka with St. Germain Elderflower liqueur and melon liqueur (for the green color) plus house sweet/tart simple syrup (from a citrus-sugar base) and a splash of crème de coco, with limes for ears and wide-set cherries for eyes, a brown paper bag as a robe and a mini lightsaber for dramatic glow. Grogu tastes rich, with a viscous texture and sweet finish. Make him a dessert drink and consider him a good representation of Tokki’s playful, easygoing charm, which doesn’t compromise the all-top-shelf bar’s high benchmark and gourmet food quality.
Tokki has quickly earned a following, including among industry folks, in six short weeks since opening. They took over the vacant space turnkey, even inheriting remaining liquor inventory. Little needed to be done with the swank jazz club interior — dim-lit and moody, with a striking red tile bar-back — though they’ve added some fun neon bunny imagery (Tokki means rabbit in Korean) and a TV that streams K-pop videos in one corner. The stage remains for live music nights (with its top-of-the-line sound system) and otherwise anything from blues and jazz to whatever the owners are in the mood for plays overhead (softly enough to have conversation heard).
The backstory on the owners: Peter Choe and Anthony Hong are childhood besties who met at Korean Catholic church 25 years ago in the Atlanta area, where Choe lived until five years ago and Hong resided until just a few months ago — when Choe persuaded him to sell everything and move out here to launch Tokki. The third partner and Tokki’s chef is Andre Oh, who also co-owns Uri Sushi on the Southeast side with his brother Andrew (and whose parents started AI Sushi in the Springs many years ago; now they operate Nara Sushi & Grill on the Westside). Oh grew up behind the scenes in restaurants; Peter holds about 10 years’ industry experience, including at Panda Express; and Hong holds about 20 years’ experience, partly at his parents’ places, which operated as cafeterias in large office buildings. Between them, they’ve worn all the hats between front and back of the house, management and kitchen work, and they plan to be active in Tokki’s day-to-day operations, backing up all staff positions and touching tables. That’s something that was evident on our visit as Choe and Hong came by and chatted and I watched them sit with several tables. Choe could be heard detailing many of Tokki’s special allocated whiskies.
There’s a whole subculture built around that, and due to the relationships with distributors that he and Jami have developed at the liquor store, Tokki’s getting allotments of several rare bourbons, scotches and Japanese whiskeys. What’s amazing: He’s priced them at manufacturer’s suggested retail price versus the extreme markups of many bars. So a label people pay upwards of $30 or $40 per pour for elsewhere, he’s selling for around $15. Some of these bottles trade in the aftermarket for high hundreds, even thousands of dollars online and people line up around liquor stores for days to procure them; here folks can at least taste some sans all that hassle.
Similarly, because of Oh’s existing relationships at Uri Sushi, Tokki’s kitchen has a leg up on other upstarts with its suppliers already locked down steady, and they’re bringing in high-quality, sushi-grade fish for daily specials and one premium fixed-menu offering, the Nine Tails Tataki (named after a fox character in Chinese mythology). For a menu-high $24 (compared to several $9 items and a few $13-$16 dishes), you receive nine pieces of stunningly fresh and delicious sashimi-grade tuna cuts that are generously coated in coarse-ground black pepper (for big bite) and flash seared in Kerrygold butter (more richness) then garnished with spicy mayo, sriracha and jalapeño coins. Fantastic. The daily special we catch isn’t actually a seafood plate, but a play on a Southern barbecue pulled pork sandwich, with tangy slaw atop chewy, beautifully seasoned pork butt bulgogi on a starchy bao bun.
Hong tells me that specials will be the only fusion plates on the menu, as the other items are all traditional-recipe Korean or Japanese items standalone. Dishes will likely rotate in and out frequently, especially seasonally, as Oh keeps himself entertained; I’m told he and his mom like to experiment in the kitchen with book and online recipes. She developed the original recipes for all of Tokki’s sauces, something they’re especially proud of, setting them apart from places that buy commercial pre-made sauces. Tokki’s unagi sauce, for example, starts with cooking down real eel, then adding fruit purées like kiwi and apple and seasonings in a process that takes 10 hours. It amps the umami and brightness of each dish we try that it appears on.
Though they do buy pre-made octopus takoyaki and fried oysters, they doll them up with garnishes after a good frying for crunchiness. The former are doughy orbs with tempura batter covered in the unagi sauce and a spicy mayo, with bonito flake topping. The latter have a coating of kampong Korean red chile and gochujang sauces, plus teriyaki, for a bright red appearance, and once you crunch through the panko jacket you hit the briny, gooey oysters for a total texture contrast. They do wrap their own crab and cream cheese Rangoons, as much of a treat as they are at Chinese restaurants but with a more interesting house sweet ’n sour dip that’s perfectly clear, as they don’t use synthetic food coloring, only honey, sugar, citrus and vinegar.
Back to cocktails: The Bloody Kimchi again uses Wheatley vodka, spiked with Seoul Sisters Korean kimchi powder seasoning and organic Agalima Bloody Mary mix. It’s a stellar Bloody Mary, with enough garnishes that it provides a snack too for $13: On top you get a takoyaki ball, a mandu (fried pot sticker) and a Korean sausage bit (hot dog with Korean seasonings essentially) along with a pickle, pepperoncini, olives and fresh lettuce wedge. We order the mezcal version of the yuzu sake margarita, which starts with a Shibata Black aged yuzu-orange sake. Then comes an organic margarita mix and Kilinga bacanora that’s smoky from a four-day roasting with mesquite in stone ovens. (It’s a tequila and mezcal cousin, also agave plant-based; I’d only seen it locally once, off menu, at La Cava.) The drink leads with a lovely citrus aroma and has a good sour-sweet balance, but packs a punch alcohol-wise; we love it.
It’s not the only alcohol-forward drink. We order to-go cocktails at lunch, which Choe calls “adult Capri Suns” because of the clear bags he serves them in, with a straw to poke in. The Mai Tokki (their take on the classic Mai Tai) is described as “slightly overproofed” with an overproofed Rum-Bar white rum base plus Black Magic dark rum, pineapple and orange juices, and two secret ingredients they don’t reveal (one of which gifts it a bright red color... so I’m guessing cranberry juice, due to a tartness in the sweet finish).
Lastly, and our favorite, a must-try for the bourbon nerds and whiskey fanatics: the Thai Spiced Old Smoke Wagon, Tokki’s play on the Old Fashioned. Its name stems from Las Vegas-distributed, coveted (as in severely limited in allocation) Smoke Wagon Straight Bourbon Whiskey. That’s hit with aromatic Thai spice bitters in place of traditional Angostura and garnished with fresh Thai basil leaves (more aroma) and a caramelized orange wheel partly coated in strawberry sugar for a bright red pop of color offset by a dark maraschino cherry. Purists may not appreciate the mild throat burn that shows up from the Thai chile bitters in the finish, accenting the bourbon’s inherent alcohol heat, but we’re all about it. Hot action.
Though I didn’t sample from it, there’s a highly competent wine list, again courtesy Jami’s prowess, with labels like Duckhorn and Decoy for house wines and familiar fine brands like La Crema, with more higher-end labels coming soon. Choe says competitive exclusion contracts he’s under enable him to price pours by the glass dollars less than most places. He also brings in interesting beers in addition to a couple Red Leg Brewing taps he hosts. I try a new-to-me Bira 91 pale ale flavored with pomello, which is grapefruit’s progenitor, with a similar bitter citrus bite. It’s brewed in India, at a sessionable 4.5-percent ABV and sports a hip monkey-face logo that totally matches the cartoony Asian vibe that’s part of Tokki’s branding with its fun rabbit iconography.
To conclude our food sampling, we order pickup from the Tokki-Go menu to try a Tokki Box — basically a bento box, based here on Korean dosirak, boxed lunches that Hong says were childhood favorites — and a Tokki Bowl, each customizable by protein choice, to include vegetable and tofu options. We pick the Chik-Katsu, juicy chicken breast pieces with crunchy panko breading over a bed of rice and lightly cooked cabbage, still snappy, with a tangy, umami flavor thanks to garnishing mayo and unagi sauce plus bonito flakes that amusingly dance a little as the heat rises from the underlying chicken. Simple, and somewhat light for a fried item. For the box, we get thin-sliced beef short-rib bulgogi, traditionally marinated for several hours with pear, soy, gochujang and all the usual suspects to yield a super tender, zesty-spicy bite. It’s over a cabbage bed too, but rice is served in a small box on the side. I pick banchan (sides) of kimchi stir-fried in butter and a little dashi (acidic yumminess), the aforementioned Korean hot dog sausages (kinda kids’ food, not my fave), fried lotus root chips (subtle in flavor, more for textural crunch) and tofu-skin bites (pleasing wads of rice fried in tempura and panko and hit with unagi sauce and spicy mayo). I eat it all with a wooden “chork,” which is a fork on one end and chopsticks on the other for its handle — neat.
We also order the single dessert option: tempura-fried (commercial) cheesecake bites and tempura-fried, hand-rolled pumpkin cream cake (from Chrissy’s Cottage Creations) served with vanilla ice cream, a lot of whipped cream and ample Hershey’s syrup drizzle. It reminds me of a common American sushi house dessert, quite cloying and somewhat carnival-fare/childlike-playful, but not as elegant as the other menu items. (The pretty-fabulous Asian desserts I recently wrote up at The Well’s Dun Sun come to mind as what would fit better in this elevated atmosphere.)
So yeah, Tokki’s not perfect, but it’s very cool and a welcome addition on the scene. It’s essentially a more Korean version of a Japanese izakaya, which Choe tells me was the intent. Down the road, they aim to open a more expansive izakaya and franchise the Tokki-Go concept, as well as possibly launch a Korean barbecue joint and even a traditional Karaoke room. Those would be in the Springs, or southward, maybe Pueblo; Choe says they don’t want to deal with Denver’s oversized market. For now, I’d say this is a hell of a start, with a lot of personality, personableness and passion. It’s as cool, and fulfilling (bang for buck), as Chiba Bar as izakayas go, but with its own quirky mood and balance of reverence (the authentic food) and irreverence (see: Grogu, the drink).
Back to the mythology: Tokki, the rabbit, tends to symbolize abundance and prosperity. It seems the perfect emblem for the gustatory game afoot here.