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For my friend Caleb, a visit to Kiki’s wasn’t just about lunch: It was about revisiting his childhood. Caleb lived in Japan for eight years before moving to the United States when he was 13. And that’s why every aspect of Kiki’s—the maneki-nekos (welcome cats), the bamboo shutter blinds—elicited a homesick sigh, accompanied by the phrase “that is so Japanese.” This made sense when I learned owner Michi Kikuchi previously operated a fast-food restaurant in Tokyo. Kikuchi brought his knowledge of casual Japanese dining to Denver when he opened Kiki’s 13 years ago.
It wasn’t until I tried the food—all of it traditional and crafted from recipes Kikuchi developed in Japan—that I truly began to understand Caleb’s wistfulness. The first bite of gyoza (dumplings) revealed that this meal would be different from my usual Japanese lunches. The dumpling’s pan-fried sear on one side added a caramely crunch to the filling of seasoned pork, onions, and garlic. Even the miso soup, a dish so often a tasteless afterthought, was anything but. The silky, complex broth, which was studded with cubes of tofu and thick strips of cabbage, delivered a subtle hint of fish.
Everything we tasted garnered Caleb’s stamp of approval, yet it was the flavor of the chicken katsu curry (and, at $7.45, its ridiculously reasonable price) that reminded him of, in his own words, “a tiny Japanese subway curry stall.” I took a nibble with my chopsticks. Cumin and coriander blended with vegetables to create a thick sauce that topped a freshly fried chicken breast breaded with panko. Rounded out with white rice, the result was an entrée that, even shared, left us satisfied. Now I find myself joining Caleb in his nostalgia. My longing, however, is not directed toward the country of his childhood, but rather toward this small, unassuming Denver restaurant. 2440 S. Colorado Blvd., 303-504-4043, kikisjapaneserestaurant.com
Hot Tempura Shrimp Udon Bowl $8.95
Chicken Katsu Curry $7.45
Pork Katsudon $7.45
Chicken Yakisoba $7.45