Go For the Food: Feed your soul at Denver’s Domo

Domo isn't just a Japanese restaurant. It's a place where you can immerse yourself in Japanese culture — by visiting a museum that evokes a northern Japanese farmhouse, strolling in a garden studded with Buddha statues, or even taking a martial arts class in the lovingly converted former warehouse where the restaurant compound is located.

But for all the activity options, Domo's ambiance — like the food — is uncluttered and serene. Diners sit at bare, rustic tables fashioned from recycled sandstone pavers. And don't go looking for the usual bottle of soy sauce. Owner and head chef Gaku Homma doesn't want anything to mask the flavors of his long-simmered broths and delicate noodles, stars of a cuisine he calls country Japanese.

Lunch at Domo might be a tangle of cold buckwheat noodles, to be warmed as you eat, by dipping a loaded chopstick into a bowl of slightly sweet soup of burdock and scallions. Dinner might be ramen: wheat noodles in miso broth. Meals come with an array of sides, including a salad of chicken, peanuts, cilantro and jalapeno; or green beans dressed with tofu, garlic and sundried tomato.

But the restaurant is also a place to feed the soul and contemplate the complex mix of histories and cultures that make Denver and its food scene worth sampling.

Colorado's first Japanese immigrants were 19th-century peasant pioneers who worked on railroads and farms, and in mills and mines. A century later, during World War II, Japanese-Americans were rounded up into relocation camps, including one in southeastern Colorado, even though Colorado's then-governor Ralph Carr denounced such treatment as unconstitutional. After the war, some former internees — including those who'd come from other states — made homes in Colorado, and the local Japanese-American population became bigger, younger and better-educated.

Domo's Homma found Colorado welcoming when he arrived in the 1970s to teach the martial art of aikido. He had been invited to America by some of the U.S. servicemen he had taught while they were stationed in Japan. At his Denver studio, he taught not just fighting techniques, but that the values of discipline and service also were essential to aikido. His students renovated parks and fed the homeless. Homma, who had cooked for fellow students during his own aikido training in Japan, finally opened a tiny restaurant in central Denver.

"It grew and grew and grew," he said.

In 1996, he brought together his restaurant, studio and other interests in the current compound. Emily Busch, a Denverite who spent a college year abroad in Japan, was an early collaborator. She now helps Homma run service projects that include supporting orphanages in Asia and Latin America. Proceeds from the restaurant support the international work.

"Every part of the center works together,'" Busch said, quoting the slogan on the restaurant's chop stick wrappers: "Dine at Domo and feed the world."