Colorado-based Tokyo Joe's is a fast-food chain that needs to slow down
Fast-casual Japanese food like rice bowls, udon noodles and simple sushi rolls at cheap prices, served in a compact bistro environment that encourages come-as-you-are, quick-service dine-in or even faster carry-out: That's a golden dragon of a concept. But the unfortunate reality I saw while recently having lunch at Tokyo Joe's was a mall food-court mess of noise, confusion and litter, with food that was barely at mall-food standards. The owner/operators of Tokyo Joe's need to slow down and take stock of how and why this Colorado-based chain got so popular so fast -- or risk getting unpopular just as quickly.
J. Wohletz The "Yo" salmon roll at Tokyo Joe's.
Tokyo Joe's was started in 1996 by former pro-skier Larry Leith, who wanted to create a healthy, fast-food alternative by offering simplified, inexpensive, nutritious Americanized Japanese items (effectively birthing the anti-McDonald's). The first two locations in the southern suburbs were so successful that today there are 24 Tokyo Joe's stores in Colorado. And that could be at least two too many.
Last Saturday I was walking down the 16th Street Mall when I spied a Tokyo Joe's. It was noon and I was hungry -- but I was taken aback by the scary-crowded dining area; the long, winding line to the counter; and the generally loud, cluttered atmosphere. Instead of going in, I headed for the Tokyo Joe's at 901 West Hampden Avenue in Englewood, thinking that location would be less insane -- but it turned out to just as nutty, uber-packed with a long-ass line, and so noisy I could have stood in the middle of the room and blasted an entire Pantera album on a boombox and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
J. Wohletz The not-spicy tuna roll.
But by now I was really hungry, so I got in line. During my twenty-minute wait, I had plenty of time to choose my order: pork and veggie gyoza ($3), a Joe's Noodle Bowl ($7.10), raw and seared tuna nigiri ($3.70 each), salmon and eel nigiri ($3.70 each), the Joe's roll ($6.10) and one roll each of spicy tuna, unagi, veggie and salmon. The cashier in the chaotic kitchen and counter area looked panicked at my order, and confessed that the sushi-rolling employee had done a no-show, so my food might take half an hour or more.
I assured her that I didn't mind, because I'm all-too-familiar with under-staffing problems. While I waited -- another 45 minutes -- I watched a staff that seemed to be moving as fast as it could, doing the best it could with an absolute glut of customers -- and the bodies kept piling into the dining room, where the line was consistently twenty-deep. At a restaurant this busy, adequate staffing should be a high priority -- and having more than one employee cross-trained to roll sushi would be a smart idea.
J. Wohletz The sweet & shaggy noodle bowl.
Still, if the food was good, I wouldn't have minded the wait. But the food was not good.
The gyoza were small, soggy and tasted like the inside of a refrigerator. The Joe's Noodle Bowl was a strange pile of overcooked udon noodles; undercooked edamame; a piece of flavorless, dry, shaggy white meat chicken, and a mess of red pepper bits soaking in a cloyingly sugared broth that made me thirsty. I squirted gobs of sriracha into the bowl, but even that couldn't balance out the sweetness.