How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.
The timing of Sushi Den’s opening was auspicious. “Have you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?” asks Wayne Conwell, who spent several years working at Sushi Den and today owns the highly successful Sushi Sasa on 15th Street. “He’s very passionate about what he does, but Toshi was the right age and got here at the right time. It was incredible. You put all those things together and you have an Apple, a Sony, a Sushi Den.” The sushi trend was moving inland, steadily finding a market beyond the coasts. And Denver, with its oil-rich expense accounts, was ready for the exotic cuisine. “The 1980s in Denver were a time of excess and overspending,” John Imbergamo says. “It was all oil men and penny stockbrokers, and there was such a thing as the three-martini lunch—if not the five-martini lunch.” Chopsticks and California rolls (and nigiri for the bold) became a status symbol. Consider the iconic scene in The Breakfast Club, where sophisticated Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, plucks sushi from a bento box. The year was 1985.
At the time, the only seafood readily available in Colorado was tuna, yellowtail, smoked salmon, octopus, and preprepared freshwater eel. Even with the limited ingredients, Toshi knew his technique was superior. One evening shortly after Sushi Den had opened, three women sat at the sushi bar. One didn’t eat a single bite; when Toshi asked her why, she replied that she ate sushi, but not in Denver. Those words became Toshi’s inspiration: He would serve sushi that was equal to or better than what was available in Los Angeles or New York. He would educate the customer. Toshi began buying fish from his contacts at a Los Angeles fish distributor. Not only was the quality of Sushi Den’s fish better as a result, but there was also a variety—jumbo clam, abalone, sea urchin, halibut—previously unseen in Denver restaurants. “There wasn’t anything like Sushi Den when it opened,” Dutton says. “The Kizaki brothers essentially started the sushi scene in Colorado. They really developed it in the central United States. They did it better.”
Years before the Kizakis stepped foot in the United States, however, a small, close-knit Japanese community honored its rich culinary heritage. At the center of it all was the Granada Fish Market at Larimer and 19th streets, near what is now Sakura Square and Pacific Mercantile. The market was a link to past and present, to old country and new. Owner Frank Torizawa took pride in stocking the market with the best seafood he could source. “I remember his knife; he would bring it wrapped in newspaper,” says Seattle Fish Company’s Derek Figueroa. “He would go through the tuna—the whole fish—evaluate them, and pick one out. Then he would take half. He would do this once or twice a week.” For many, Torizawa was a familiar face with a shared history: The fish market’s roots extended back to Camp Amache, the Japanese internment camp outside of Granada on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
At its peak, the Amache “War Relocation Center” housed 7,318 Japanese-Americans—and counted as Colorado’s 10th largest city. In 1945, when Amache was ordered to close, many of the internees did not have the means to return home to the West Coast. Thousands migrated to Denver and built new lives downtown and north of the city. The local Japanese population grew exponentially, and its cultural and culinary traditions took hold in the Mile High City. But it took another 40 or so years—and the Kizaki brothers—before the finely tuned, fish-centric cuisine found a broad audience outside of the Japanese community.
Frank Bonanno remembers Sushi Den’s early days in the former pizzeria. Long before the New Jersey native was a chef, Bonanno was a student at the University of Denver and a regular at the tiny restaurant. “I think there were 12 spots at the bar and four tables,” Bonanno says. “It was guys from my fraternity—we all knew about sushi because we were from the East Coast.” Bonanno wasn’t the only one with a fondness for Sushi Den; the restaurant was so popular that Toshi added another location in Boulder inside a seafood restaurant named Pelican Pete’s (it shuttered a short time later). After the Boulder space closed, Toshi opened a spot in Cherry Creek. He closed that location after realizing he couldn’t maintain his exacting standards in two places at once. Instead, the Kizakis bought the corner lot on South Pearl and Florida streets and built the window-encased space that became today’s Sushi Den. It opened in August 1990.
Some years later, Yasu was at a coffee shop in Cherry Creek, where he overheard three women having a conversation about where they liked to go for sushi. The answers: Sushi Tazu, Japon, and Sushi Den. That Sushi Den wasn’t the first choice of all three diners was unacceptable—even disparaging—to Yasu. He carried the message back to Toshi, who called upon their youngest brother, Koichi, to change careers (he worked for a glass company installing large windows in hotels and cruise ships) and find a way into Nagahama Fish Market in southern Japan. Toshi wanted to handpick his product—much like he had in Los Angeles. The three brothers work in tandem, but they each fill a specific role: Toshi is the visionary, Yasu is the practical businessman, and Koichi is the worker bee.
Since 1996, Koichi, now 52 years old, has risen at 3:30 a.m., walked a short distance to the market, and purchased iced-down pallets stacked with fresh catch. The routine is the same year-round: Twice a week, he takes his seasonal selections—such as needlefish or wild yellowtail—and packs them to be flown via Korean Air to San Francisco, and then by United Airlines to Denver International Airport.
The shipments, vacuum-sealed and packed with dry ice and sheets of Japanese newsprint, usually arrive on Tuesdays and Fridays. In the back of Sushi Den’s kitchen, Toshi and Yasu pore over the contents. There’s no time to waste; everything, from the tangle of freshwater eels to the tiny, spiderlike baby octopuses, is perishable. These specialty items, some of which will find their way onto VIP diners’ plates each night, round out the fish and seafood procured from distributors such as True World and Seattle Fish Company.
Selecting seafood at Nagahama requires more than a purchaser’s badge—it demands buying power. The Kizakis took a two-pronged approach to gain as much leverage as possible: They opened Sushi Den Japan in Fukuoka, across from the fish market (fish and seafood restaurants get top pick of the day’s catch). The brothers also founded a distributorship called Sushi Den Express in Los Angeles to funnel seafood to Sushi Den and a few exclusive California Japanese restaurants, such as Takao and Mori Sushi. (Yasu says that celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa also used to purchase fish from them.) Locating the distribution center in L.A. instead of Denver made sense geographically, and it also ensured that Sushi Den’s competitors weren’t the beneficiaries of the brothers’ ingenuity. “One of the reasons we wanted to bring fish into the United States was because we were competing with others. We had to do something dramatic,” Yasu says. “The profit margin has shrunk and the exchange rate is outrageous, but we do this because it separates us from the rest.”