***This blogpost originally appeared on Monday, 4/18, on Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful blog as part of my Gorging Global series; I will be reposting some of my favorites here.***

I’d bypassed this strip-mall storefront on South Colorado a hundred times, taking it for a mere peddler of cut-rate California rolls. But its name kept popping up: a kind word from a Chowhound here, a little bird Tweeting its praises there. When curiosity finally got the better of me, I discovered with delight that Domo, for all its deserved fame, is not the only Japanese comfort kitchen in town.

Though Tokyo-born chef-owner Michi Kikuchi does serve sushi, a sweeping glance around the tables reveals where his heart really is: in heaping rice & noodle bowls, steaming soups & stir-fries — the stuff that sticks to your ribs. In fact, to an Oklahoma girl like me and my Iowa-born-and-bred sweetheart, much of the repertoire looked startlingly familiar.

Take the hayashi. Described simply as “hashed beef, onion cooked Brown sauce,”

it’s virtually indistinguishable from shredded, barbecued brisket, smothered in a rich, tangy tomato gravy. Sure, it’s served à la carte with rice, not slopped on a bun alongside fries, & the fat is unapologetically intact rather than trimmed. But the overall effect was to transport me to the downhome rib shacks of my youth.

The same went for my love’s katsu-karē (literally, “cutlet curry”). After all, breaded, fried pork tenderloin is an Iowa tradition; this dish is precisely that, only it’s covered in a thick, mild, cumin-&-turmeric-dominated curry sauce, introduced to Japan by the British following their colonization of India.

And so it goes: from classic sukiyaki (a type of hot pot) & teriyaki (meat or fish grilled and coated in a sweet soy sauce) to ramen & dumplings (both pan-fried gyoza & steamed shumai), KiKi’s menu is one big comfort zone. But if you’re determined to step out of it, try the sanma shioyaki.

It’s a simple enough dish: a pair of saury, also known as mackerel pike, grilled and&served whole with nothing but a scoop of fresh grated daikon & a slice of lemon. (Note that in Japan, sudachi, a type of native citrus, is the more common garnish.) But it’s not for the squeamish insofar as digging in with chopsticks invariably means coming up with some guts & bones along with the pungent, oily, succulent flesh & blackened, crackling skin.

Such soulful cooking is only enhanced by the atmosphere. Though tiny — with maybe 10 or 12 tables and booths flanked by a barely-there sushi bar — the dining room is warm & quaint, all blond wood & brightly lacquered bric-a-brac.

Factor in surprisingly quick service, & you’ve got a solid pick for a casual date, intimate but not so romantic that you’ll regret having tangled with fish innards.

Kikis Japanese Casual Dining on Urbanspoon