When or What is a “Pop-up?”
A restaurant pop-up is our early way of introducing ourselves to Colorado. The pop-up only takes place for a limited time, and it will happen in the greater metro Denver area.
We are planning on having a media and an early tasting day to help get things right so that we come correct. Shortly after that, the actual pop-up will happen in the spring/summer of 2019, and if you are interested in trying our Japanese ramen, please add yourself to our email list.
Q&A with Greg Taniguchi about the Pop-up
A PR friend of Greg’s had helped to conduct a recorded interview with him which was to be used to create a write-up, but due to his long and drawn out responses (*yawn* only 10% joking), it was decided to transcribe and post almost everything in its entirety.
So why are you doing a ramen pop-up versus coming straight out with a restaurant?
“To determine the market demand, size, and receptivity to authentic Japanese food/ramen. If that sounds cautious, it is due to my marketing background although I am also going about it this way because I still have my training wheels on… till they wobble and break off.”
What if it doesn’t meet expectations, did you have other places or states in mind?
“The last couple of years I have been looking for a city I wanted to be in, and I visited Portland and Seattle, considered Hawaii, and I was also supposed to check out Texas although I put off Texas for now. I love the Bay Area, but the dotcoms have made living there unaffordable and starting a business there extremely expensive. Colorado is one of the nicest states on the West Coast (like Utah can even come close, they lack bars), and since I have a home-field advantage, I chose to come back. The only other place I had planned for a year or so or more was back in Los Angeles, but what deterred me from wanting to live in L.A. was the cost of living compared to the quality of life, along with carrying the start-up cost of doing business. Not to mention, there is a big difference between a 650K home in L.A. (a crack shack) versus what you get in Denver for the same price (a McShacksion ).”
Can’t you determine that from the existing Japanese restaurants here?
“There are not a whole lot of authentic Japanese restaurants in Colorado due to there being little to no Japanese here, so the vast majority of the businesses here are Japanese inspired businesses that lean more towards a very Americanized fusion cuisine. The type of food that you find in any major coastal state is as close as you’re going to get in the U.S. to the places in Japan. In fact, a lot of the larger Japanese companies, restaurant groups, and brands are here in the United States. A few of them are Toridoll (Tokyo Table), Ramla USA, Take 5 (Hachi and Manpuku), Santouka, Kura Corp, Mitsuwa, Gyu-kaku to Coco Ichi which have locations in CA, TX, HI, OR, WA, to NY. Unfortunately, none of them are in Colorado, so you do not get to experience how Hawaii feels as though you are in Japan. Even on the mainland, Seattle doesn’t have a whole lot, but the ones they do have are above average, and in Texas, they have recently had a significant influx of Japanese and Japanese businesses due to Toyota relocating their headquarters from Torrance, CA to Plano.”
You mentioned “authentic,” but what difference does it make if it’s authentic or fusion?
“It doesn’t matter as long as it tastes good to whoever is eating it although when it comes to food, I love to experience the culture behind the cuisine. I also think that there are others like me who are looking for the same thing which is substance over a place with quirky taglines and good typography/graphics. I also hope that is the case because the food is the second best way of experiencing a culture without actually having to travel to the country if you don’t have the means or opportunity to do that. I don’t expect everybody to care if their Doritos’ Loco Taco Supreme from Taco Bell is reflective of the flavors of Oaxaca or if Pizza Hut is anything like being in Naples. Although I just want to be able to contribute to the Denver restaurant community if possible by offering up an experience as genuine as possible, that reflects Japanese culture. I have a connection with this state, and I think it’s worth the risk even without a large base of Japanese/Japanese Americans to support me here. I think that because Denver has always been a progressive state (now, with the munchies) that has a track record of embracing cultures/diversity/lifestyles. Not only that, when it comes to the food industry here, Denver dominates with innovating fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Quizno’s, Qdoba, Smashburger, Einstein Brothers Bagels, and Boston Market because they all emerged from Colorado.”
So are you not a fan of fusion food?
“I am when it’s done right because I have eaten off the Kogi truck and my childhood got better being able to eat California rolls over just inari and futomaki. Although the downside is, if you were to go to any workplace, even yours, you know there are a large segment of your co-workers that you think don’t pull their weight. Now take that percentage of “can do” and “can’t do” people and apply it to the restaurant industry. That same small percentage of talented individuals that can do fusion right is almost the same amount from industry to industry. I do think Colorado has several talented individuals although I won’t say who they are (I’m not implying it is myself either), but like any other industry, there are a ton of hacks. The talented ones will lead the way while the rest will just copy that person and not to the full extent because there’s always going to be the “lost in translation” issue happening. Colorado also just got one of the most famous fusion restauranteurs which is Nobu Matsuhisa (he just opened in Cherry Creek not too long ago?). He is a very famous sushi chef in Los Angeles and around the worldwide for his fusion Japanese/Latin American (Peruvian) cuisine which he was exposed to during his time living in South America. His “new style sashimi” and other fusion dishes were all copied by other restaurants because you can find his recipes in his cookbook which are being used in restaurants all over the United States. The one thing that sets him apart is his knowledge and skill of blending which flavors and techniques blend well together, and not just throwing in the kitchen sink and calling it fusion because you don’t know how to do it right (traditionally or any other way). Also on that end of the spectrum, you have chefs like David Schlosser of Shibumi in DTLA who epitomizes the type of people who deserve a level of respect. He had been trained in the states at several well-known Japanese restaurants and in Japan, yet he takes all that experience and his understanding of the culture and does Kappo style cuisine. He doesn’t deviate from the cuisine even though he can infuse and change it up to his liking, but instead, he uses creative restraint which his restaurant’s name is reflective of him and his approach.”
Can you give me an example or tell me what are some authentic Japanese foods?
“Authentic Japanese cuisine falls into two categories which are “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) and “yoshoku” (western fusion style food, haha). I wrote a recent article about LA’s Japanese restaurants, and I think I was able to identify at least 19 types of Japanese dishes and types of restaurants that you can probably only find in SoCal. I know “sushi” is the first food that most Americans think of if you were to ask them “what do Japanese people eat?” After that, I don’t think most would say curry (Japanese style) although it’s almost the national dish of Japan and popular enough to be an emoji. Beyond that, you have meat dishes like gyu-don, oyakodon (beef to chicken bowls), nabe (throw everything into a pot), yakiniku (grilled meat), to yakitori (grilled and skewered chicken). Other dishes include soba (buckwheat noodles), udon (big ole fatty wheat noodles), oknonomiyaki (a Japanese frittata), to shojin-ryori (vegetarian/Buddhist food) are common dishes and types of restaurants you’d encounter in Japan. I mean, it would be nice to be able to eat sushi all day, eveeeerryday till you lose it from the monotony and start talking to a volleyball.”
Greg just wanted make another comment about authentic Japanese food.
“The one thing that really bugs me is how the media is unaware or understands Japanese culture and how it relates to the food. That is why they hype up the most expensive omakase (is it expensive because they just want to charge a lot?), to saying that an American is the first ever with a tiny sushi bar (have you ever been to Japan and seen how tiny the places are? A lot of businesses probably have at most 2-4 person capacity restaurants of any place in the world), or trying to tell me that a 25 y.o. is revolutionizing sushi culture (things are slowly changing in Japan, but working on a specific craft is a lifelong pursuit). All of those distorted and sensationalist headlines trickle on down to businesses here in the U.S. and Colorado which is unfortunate.”
Yea, you probably won’t find that range of dishes anywhere else outside of Japan, but what makes you think any of those dishes would have any appeal here?
“Good question and I missed the key point which is that Japanese style cuisine can be very healthy versus the Americanized version. Colorado has been rated as one of the healthier states, so it is counter-intuitive to see or think of Coloradans eating the Americanized version of Japanese food which is full of sauces and where the quality of ingredients are secondary. In Japan, local suppliers/producers are used whenever possible to highlight the regional vendors. Having quality ingredients highlights the subtle, natural, and savory (umami) flavors which are paramount in aspects of traditional Japanese food. In the United States, that is often lost here in place of overly bold flavors. Japan also has had one of the highest, if not the highest life expectancy in the world which I partially contribute to the food because not only do they use quality ingredients, but portion size and the variety of ingredients provide a healthy balanced diet. Even Japanese junk food which ramen falls under has numerous health benefits such as the high percentage of collagen and healthy fats in pork stock (tonkotsu) that many Paleo diets are based on. Some also say the stock is excellent for digestive and joint health too, but as for me, I also swear by a bowl of pho or Thai boat noodles with their beef stock when I’m hungover versus my friends suggesting a burger from In’n’Out.”
Yea, I just went to Japan (you know that), so I saw how much of a different experience it is in Japan versus what I had experienced in the U.S. in terms of not only pricing, quality, but the service is also amazeballs.
“Yea, the one most apparent Japanese cultural aspect most often bastardized in the U.S. is with pricing/positioning/value. I have seen how the media will hype up the “most expensive sushi omakase,” yet they tout that and sensationalize it without any cultural context because sensationalism and exclusivity in the U.S. sells. Craft, hard work, and attention to detail in Japan in any trade from a taxi cab driver, an employee at 7-11, to checking into a hotel in Japan is a lot different from the United States. The experience you encounter there will make you think you are going to pay 6-8x’s more (or you are somehow being mistaken for a celebrity), but that level of service is so commonplace in Japan. I mean, I have been to places where people had thought I had paid $300-$400 for a meal when what I paid was more like $40-$50. If you have ever been to Japan, you know what I mean. Stateside, the only experience close to this is if you have ever bought a Japanese sports car or luxury car. The original Lexus flagship model (LS400) debuted at around $40k, the NSX around $60k?, and even the Nissan GT-R had an initial price of $80k. In Japan, it is not about being pretentious, exclusive, or flaunting your wealth/status (it’s frowned upon in Japan) because it is a society and culture of inclusivity. Food, products, services, etc. are all priced so that your average salaryman or person can afford to eat or experience the things that everybody else can. That is the one cultural aspect I am clinging on to with the type of business I run.”
I remember ramen being cheap in Japan, but I don’t really remember how much it was even though my last trip was not too long ago.
“Well on average you’re looking at about $8-9 although it can be as low as $5-6. I expect to see pricing in the range of ¥730, ¥880, ¥980, to upwards of ¥1,030 (7 to USD 10). In SoCal, the pricing is typically in the range of $8-12 although New York and SF, due to increased costs you’ll see pricing upwards of $16-19. That is maybe why I was shocked and disgusted to see such ridiculous pricing here in Denver ($13+) when the product was nowhere close to being like Mensho-SF ($13-16), Ikkousha-OC ($8-9), or Tsujita-LA ($10 to $11) in California. There are the few here in Denver who come through, but there’s a couple that are just cashing in on ‘the trend.’”
So specifically with your ramen, how are you any different or better?
“Straight out, I don’t plan on leading with such pretentious AF pricing. Secondly, I’m not nearly as good as the overwhelming number of ramen shops in Japan although I’d say I’m on par with places in LA which isn’t saying much. With ramen or anything I do, I am continually working on improving myself every day, but to hype myself up even for the sake of a business would be an insult to ramen and extremely laughable. Ramen in Japan is a craft/trade, and it is taken very seriously which is why you will have a drastically different experience when you eat ramen in Japan vs. the U.S. although we are getting better domestically grown places. It’s just in Japan, the country where generation after generation have taken on the family business of running and operating a restaurant to crafting the best sake, miso, to nori. It’s a very competitive atmosphere because I hear there are twice as many ramen ya’s in Japan than Starbucks has stores around the world. Not only that, the most Michelin starred restaurants are in Japan. So, don’t expect to find a great ramen recipe online which is why there is such a huge gap in capability and quality of ramen-ya’s outside of Japan, yet the U.S. based businesses like the opportunity to be able to capitalize on the prices it is fetching since it’s a ‘trend’ now. I don’t plan on taking advantage of it to increase that gap of how much shittier we are from an actual product of value. If I wanted to do that, I would open up a “pooky” (fake poke) place instead.”
(this is just an “excerpt” from a longer discussion on pricing, value, culture, etc. in the U.S.)
…I really like all what Jon Bon Jovi and his Soul Kitchen, but I especially like Roy Choi and his recently opened LocoL. It is businesses like those that are really inspiring and what really drive me versus seeing some Michelin starred place (not like I don’t respect those, I do. It’s just a different drive or motivation).
Why is it that, that there are a lot of fusion over authentic places?
“Denver has a large population of Korean, Vietnamese/SE Asians (Laos/Cambodian), and Chinese (I know because a lot of them are my homies) although the Japanese population has been on a continual decline into the U.S. for quite some time. So in Denver, the vast majority of the restaurants here are no longer ran, owned, or operated by Japanese. Since you don’t have to cater to Japanese tastes, you can do whatever you want – it is possibly one reason why you don’t see a bunch of fusion Korean and Vietnamese pho places. Ultimately, it does not matter if you are authentic as long as it appeals to your overall market, it’s a (smart) business after all.”
I have seen how the media hypes pho or ramen as trends, but what is your take on that?
“You already know how I feel about that and it brings out my inner rage like AggRetsuko (an anime on Netflix). So, yea, no. When that “trend” is over, the people of whichever ethnicity it originated from will still be doing our thing, and eating the foods we grew up eating. I also know the hacks in the media will often lump Asians: Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, to Japanese all into one, but the food is just as different as Italian is to German and Russian is to Argentinian. Russians may do a pelmeni, but you can’t call it a ravioli, xiao long bao, or even gyoza as being the same thing, especially after you dumped some sour cream and fresh dill on top of it. The same goes for ramen in contrast to Vietnamese pho or bun bo hue. Each of these cuisines has very distinctive flavor profiles that have been developed over decades to centuries, and they are unique to each respective culture. Those differences is what I love about it, and it’s why you’ll find me eating Vietnamese bun bo hue or Taiwanese beef noodle soup when I’m not eating ramen. If you don’t get it, you’re also the same type that thinks a Bentley and Chrysler 300 look the same.”
So how do you like the pho in Colorado?
“Vietnamese are always OG AF wherever you go because they do what they do. There’s no B.S. fusion pho or pandering that goes on in the vast majority of Viet communities although there is the one pho restaurant I have in Newport Beach with their bougie filet mignon only pho and Moroccan tagines (and Kobe Bryant pic). That place was probably doing well until another Viet family opened up a real pho restaurant right up the street and they didn’t hold back on the fish sauce, tendon, or tripe. That is what I came to expect from the Vietnamese spots I had been exposed to during my college years because I had a lot of Viet friends who lived in Eastside San Jo, so I ate a lot of Viet food. Although I got to say, between CA and CO, I love the pho and bun bo Hue here in Denver. In fact, I think it’s better than the stuff you’d find in Little Saigon, SF (I still need to go back to San Jose), and definitely in Los Angeles/Orange County. People hype up L.A. way too much because when it comes to Mexican or specifically Chicano style food, I love Colorado’s pork green chili, the Original Chubby’s, La Casita, and all my friends also like the pho in Denver. With the size of the Korean and Vietnamese communities in Denver, I highly suggest that people venture out to Federal Blvd for the Vietnamese restaurants and Havana for the Korean restaurants in Aurora.”
Aside from how receptive the market is, why Colorado and what else are you concerned about?
“I’m not only a fourth generation Japanese American, but I am also a fourth generation Coloradan although for the last several decades I have lived in the SF Bay Area and the last decade and a half in the Los Angeles metro area. Living there all that time, I can tell you the nuances of a lot of the areas in L.A. such as about the people, the reputation of the food/owners/businesses/neighborhoods, or where to eat. If you’re wondering, I highly suggest the birria de chivo at Birrieria de Mexico in Van Nuys, the lechon at El Cochinito in Silverlake, Boiling Crab in Garden Grove (the originator), to the best izakaya is Hachi in Torrance. I, unfortunately, can not do that in Denver yet (I still love the Original Chubby’s, #donthate), and I want to make sure that I get things right from the start. I also don’t want to sell Denver short or the people here who miss having the ramen they had during their last trip to Japan, or the people who have worked or had been stationed in Japan with a half-assed attempt on my part (I put a lot of pressure on myself here). Also, choosing a spot with the right size and vibe in an area that is seeking a legit a ramen-ya is important to me because I’d like it to be in biking/Super 73/boosted board/dog walking distance area. I may be a car guy, but you’ll find me on my bike or walking a lot.”
Where have you been looking so far?
“I have looked at several areas and food halls although I have an “attachment” (a sentimental one) to want to be around particular areas because of the history with Japanese Americans which is the five points area (Sakura Square borders it). That general area is where my grandparents, family friends (Bob and Yumi), and uncle (Richard Goto) on my dad’s side lived nearby (the Skyland area across from City Park). Outside of that area, I grew up in S.E. Denver where I barely graduated from TJ although I’m not sure about this area at all which is why I’m spending the time to learn more about the people and the neighborhoods.”
Are you still on schedule?
I am to a degree although I am unfortunately slightly behind. I had initially planned all of this to happen in L.A., so having to adjust to a totally different state/market to finding and sourcing producers has been a huge challenge. Things I have come to expect, I no longer have such as being able to go to not only two different Mitsuwa’s, a Tokyo Central, but also a Seiwa all within minutes of each other was the best thing in the world when it comes to being able to find ingredients to experiment with. Now, I only have Pacific Mercantile and the Korean and Viet/Chinese markets outside of the Japanese food distributors like Wismettac which I am very grateful to have here.
I know you don’t want to be titled as a “chef” from earlier conversations, but can you elaborate on that.
“I think that title is thrown around way too frivolously, so I feel more comfortable being called a “cook” or no title at all.”
I’ve already said it before, but goodluck although I know you’ll do well.
“Wow, thank you. Yea, I hope so although I’m confident about certain things, and there are other factors that I know I have to work on. I just need to be like you, and be relentlessly passionate.”