How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.
Seven miles from the rarified atmosphere of Sushi Den, Makoto Kawafune, the owner of Sonoda’s Sushi & Seafood in southeast Aurora, takes his knife to a ruby slab of tuna. He slices deftly and with reverence before arranging three domino-size pieces of fish onto a platter already kaleidoscoped with striped bass and salmon and clouds of shaved daikon root. The 24-year-old restaurant—like Sushi Den, a seminal sushi establishment in metro Denver—sits in its original location off Parker Road and Dartmouth Avenue. On the afternoon I visit, two of Sonoda’s very first customers from 1988 are seated at a corner table enjoying a late lunch. “We are pretty traditional and authentic,” says Masaaki Kawafune, the son of Makoto. “Our base is the Japanese-Americans and first generation. It’s a community—we have customers who have been here since the war.” Behind Kawafune, a window looks west, and I can almost see the green expanse of Kennedy Golf Course roughly a mile away. The golf course sits across the street from the former home of Zen Restaurant, where Toshi Kizaki got his Denver start in 1983.
Toshi landed in Colorado by way of Los Angeles, where he manned the sushi bar at Shogun Restaurant in Pasadena. There, his predawn visits to the local fish market earned him respect among his peers and a loyal clientele. Even so, he was considering returning to Japan when, by chance, he came across an advertisement for a sushi chef position at Zen in Denver, a market largely untouched by the nascent sushi phenomenon. He answered the ad, the owner of the restaurant flew to Los Angeles, and, ultimately, offered him the job. It was a risky, ambitious move, but Toshi packed up and headed east.
Toshi’s stint at Zen was short-lived; he was fired for telling customers he intended to open a place of his own. He moved on to Sushi Koi downtown and a handful of other local spots but continued to hone the strategy for opening what would eventually become Sushi Den. He and his business partner (a Japanese friend who had moved from L.A. with him) found a space on South Pearl Street. Toshi used $100,000 in seed money from his father, Taketo Kizaki—ironically from a real estate deal involving a golf course in Japan—to secure the lease and begin operations. His partner, whom Toshi later bought out, set about getting the building ready to become a sushi bar, but they kept the business—Luigi’s Pizza—open to help pay the rent. On Toshi’s days off, he delivered the pizza. “He had customers complain and ask for their money back because the pizza was so bad,” Yasu says with a laugh.
One day, Yasu spoke with his father, who demanded Yasu check on the status of the restaurant. Yasu, who was living in London while working in the mental-health field and chefing at a sushi restaurant on the side, flew to Denver and stayed through the opening. Sushi Den, located three doors down from its current location (in what was most recently India’s Pearl), opened on Christmas Eve in 1984. Toshi was 28 years old.
Afterward, Yasu flew to Japan to give his father a full report. “My father told me, ‘Brothers shouldn’t be separated,’ ” Yasu says. “I put my brother’s needs first. If Toshi decides something, I do it.” As a gesture of good faith, the chef he worked under in London gifted Yasu one of his very best sushi knives. Yasu arrived in Denver a year later with the knife packed deep inside a box.