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1501 S. Pearl St.
The Draw: Japanese street food prepared on robata grills; some of the freshest raw fish in Denver
The Drawback: Some skewers are small for the price; limited sake offerings
Noise Level: Low
Don’t Miss: Pork with kimchi, salmon collar, bacon mochi, maguro ramen
According to birth order theory, last-born siblings tend to be rebellious charmers. They’re often able to push the boundaries further because their parents have already been through it all with their elder two children. Ototo, which means “younger brother” in Japanese, joined the restaurant family that encompasses Sushi Den and Izakaya Den in 2016, thus completing what is now referred to as the Den Corner on South Pearl Street. But while the older siblings reopened after the pandemic-induced shutdowns of 2020, Ototo remained dark for three years.
Yasu Kizaki, who co-owns the Den Corner businesses with his brother, Toshi, says Ototo stayed closed to enable the team to focus on the success of Sushi Den. When Ototo finally turned its stoves back on this April, the overlooked last-born began to demand attention from diners under the leadership of new chef Inoue Taro. With hard-to-find-in-Denver dishes on its menu, an atmosphere that simultaneously feels lively and relaxed (Katy Perry plays on the speakers, and there’s a large flatscreen behind the bar), and an ideal location in Platt Park, the Japanese-street-food-focused concept is difficult to ignore.
Sushi Den and Izakaya Den mostly share the same refined Japanese menu, but Ototo specializes in more casual bites, such as ramen and skewers charred on a robata grill. The robata style, named for the Japanese word for fireside cooking, uses extremely high, consistent temperatures powered by Japanese binchotan (white oak) charcoal to grill meats, seafood, and vegetables. Instead of imparting the smokiness many Americans are used to from barbecue, however, binchotan sheds almost no flavor or aroma into its food, making the robata method prized for its clean taste.
The selection of skewers rotates nightly, but I was able to taste the duck breast and lamb shoulder. The duck—three curls of the thinnest sliced poultry you’ll ever see, separated by giant scallions charred to a fragrant crisp—is heightened with a sweet teriyaki dipping sauce. The lamb was cooked beautifully with no hint of gaminess and came with a cucumber mint sauce that balanced the umami-rich notes. But my stick had just five small pieces of meat, some of which were the size of marbles. At $12 to $14 per brochette, a diner could be justifiably disappointed. (Note: The menu changes frequently, so prices are subject to change.)
By contrast, the salmon collar, grilled over that same binchotan, is a steal at $18. Far and away the best part of the fish to grill, the collar has more fat plus some gelatinous bits from the head that make the meat buttery and rich beneath its crispy, blackened skin. The flesh was even better dunked in the accompanying ponzu sauce.
In true last-child form, Ototo’s bacon mochi was eclectic yet totally captivating. It’s exactly as it sounds: bacon wrapped around bite-size rice cakes. Greasy and intensely chewy, the dish requires the diner to really like both bacon and mochi. I loved the squishy texture of the mochi, but the fat and grease did make it heavy. Still, it’s the only thing I couldn’t stop thinking about hours, and even days, later. Priced at $9 for four pieces, it’s worth ordering to try something that goes beyond the usual maki rolls and nigiri available at many other Japanese joints.
A steaming-hot cast-iron dish of thinly shaved pork and spicy kimchi crowned with earthy red chile threads was fantastic—and memorable in a different way. The sharpness of the fermented cabbage played nicely with the juicy meat, and the sprinkling of the pretty garnish was so generous that I had to laugh when I pulled a rogue thread out of my hair later that night.
Ototo simmers a few ramens, including the expected porky tonkotsu and one I hadn’t tasted before: maguro, the Japanese word for tuna. The latter’s broth is made with tuna and whitefish bones, so it has a fishier flavor than the ramen bowls infused with pork and beef parts we’re used to in the United States. Topped with a tangle of noodles and both fried and raw tuna, the dish has almost too much fish for one bowl, but the smart side of yuzu wasabi tempers the robust broth with a citrusy kick.
One notable downside to the dining experience at Ototo is the sake menu. Far shorter than what’s available at the other Den Corner spots, the list comprises only nine bottles, seven of which are available in the single-serving, 300-milliliter size. However, Ototo offers a decent variety that pairs well with the food offerings. I enjoyed the Hakushika Junmai Ginjo, the perfect mildly sweet accompaniment to the seafood we had.
Because coattail riding is another legitimate perk of being the last born, Ototo benefits from access to the fresh fish selections—nigiri and sashimi—and other menu items (see: the crispy spicy tuna) that have made the venue’s siblings some of the most beloved in town. Ototo may be the offbeat outlier in a family of traditionalists—with its own free-spirited twists and a more low-key vibe—but the restaurant’s draw is undeniable.
Spinoff restaurants are often left in the shadows of their more famous predecessors, but these Front Range eateries are just as delightful as their older family members.
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