Sakura Square—the cultural hub of Denver’s Japanese and Japanese American community—is home to two family-owned restaurants: Sakura House and JJ’s Bistro, both of which have endured a tough year. “We have a hard time, especially from last year,” says HuiYun Chen, who runs JJ’s Bistro on the mezzanine level of the plaza, which overlooks Larimer and 19th streets, with her husband Jiarong Wang. “Because all the businesspeople, they went home.”
In mid-May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings. Following the news of the CDC’s updated guidelines, most metro area counties, including Denver, lifted mask mandates and capacity limits at restaurants. As a result, many that were only offering takeout and delivery are welcoming customers back for indoor dining. Nonetheless, business at Sakura Square’s eateries hasn’t returned to normal—at least not yet.
“We know that people are allowed [inside now], but we haven’t had a lot of business,” says Chen, whose restaurant serves Chinese specialties.
While JJ’s allowed customers to eat inside the restaurant when select COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in early 2021, it closed its spacious dining room again in the spring and is back to only offering takeout for the time being. Meanwhile, Sakura House owners Kimiko and Jun Watanabe, who have cooked Japanese fare at the spot for eight years, offer dine-in service at socially distanced tables—but like JJ’s, their business remains focused on takeout. Even though mask rules are lifted, Kimiko says, “business is slow because people aren’t working downtown yet. It’s a little better on weekends.”
“I think obviously the pandemic has affected our tenants, and the restaurants are especially hard hit because people aren’t going out to eat, and even the takeout, most of the customers for takeout were office workers from downtown,” says Tim Higashide, director of business operations for Sakura Square.
Sakura Square LLC owns and manages a parking lot adjacent to the plaza, which is located two blocks from Coors Field. Higashide notes that due to the loss of revenue from Rockies game parking last year and the cancellation of the popular annual Cherry Blossom Festival in 2020 and 2021, the organization has been hard hit by the pandemic, too. (The LLC is owned by the Sakura Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to celebrate Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage and sustain the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple.)
“We really care about the tenants, and because we’re a community-based organization, throughout the pandemic we’ve tried to provide as much assistance as possible, in the form of rent assistance to the restaurants,” Higashide says.
The Watenabes opened Sakura House in 2012, when the owner of the restaurant that previously occupied the space, Yoko’s Express, retired. The husband-and-wife team came to the U.S. from Kanagawa, a culinary- and history-rich region south of Tokyo. Jun and Kimiko worked in Los Angeles restaurants for years before moving to Denver and eventually opening Sakura House. They kept Yoko’s Express’ simple, unfussy Japanese menu and added a variety of popular ramen dishes.
But the restaurant’s best-selling items are Chinese-inspired dishes that are popular in Japan’s machi chuka restaurants. The style of food is based on Chinese cuisine that’s been adapted to Japanese tastes and ingredients. Many of the couple’s Japanese clientele, he says, describe the dishes as “natsukashii,” or nostalgic, because they remind them of the food they ate growing up in Japan. The menu also reminds many Japanese American customers of their moms’ home-cooked meals. And everyone, of course, likes ramen because it’s hip, Jun says.
“Sometimes American people come in and say this is really Japanese because they’ve visited Japan,” he says.
An old-fashioned machi chuka specialty customers can order is umani yakisoba (not to be confused with umami), pan-fried noodles and beef with Napa cabbage, carrots, onions, and bean sprouts in a rich potato-starch gravy. It’s not something you’ll find in the plethora of Japanese restaurants scattered across town these days. Jun is proud of the care he puts into his dishes, which are prepared using traditional recipes. He proudly simmers vegetables and other ingredients from morning to night to produce collagen-rich bone broths and other soups for his ramens.
JJ’s Bistro is also housed in a former Japanese restaurant: Akebono, a spot previously owned by the Aoki family since the 1940s, when it first opened across Larimer as a pool hall that served American, Chinese, and Japanese food. The restaurant moved across the street into Sakura Square in 1973, and Haiyun Chen and her husband took over the space in 2005.
JJ’s has a sushi bar it inherited from Akebono but isn’t serving the specialty due to pandemic-induced efforts to pare down the food lineup. But even so, the restaurant has a huge menu featuring over 170 dishes spanning Sichuan and Mandarin Chinese cuisines, in addition to others. “We have a little bit of everything. We have Thai food, [like] pad thai, and panang curry; we have Vietnamese bowls,” says Chen, who likes reconnecting with her regular customers whenever she can, even though the spot is only offering takeout.
Chen and her team have adapted their cooking over the years to satisfy their clienteles’ palates. For instance, the eatery’s best-selling dish is sesame chicken. Despite the popularity of sesame, sweet and sour and General Tso’s chicken among customers, though, Chen notes that the dishes are American-born—not really Chinese. She admits it can be hard to manage the variety on the menu and considers condensing it even more. “Yes, if I redo the menu, I’m gonna change it to a smaller one, you know what I mean?” she says.
Chen acknowledges the world has changed because of the pandemic; and she worries that the food industry may not be the same after “normal” returns. Many downtown officer workers, for instance, may not return and stay connected from home—something she says restaurant workers simply can’t do.
“Running a restaurant isn’t like working in an office. I wish we could just work at home, but we can’t,” she says.
JJ’s Bistro, 1255 19th St., P1, 303-291-0598; Sakura House, 1255 19th St., unit A, 303-292-2323