Since its mid-2019 opening, Lulu’s Downstairs has operated as one of the most stylish places in metro Colorado Springs. The music venue has the retro ’70s lounge vibe with Manitoid-weird undertones and a heavy overlay of eclectic framed art and murals. And now, upstairs, it boasts a recently opened izakaya (Japanese-style small-plate bar) named Tenko.
Tenko benefits from the Tiki remains of the original Castaways Inn & Suites, meaning an awkward, faux-rock sculpture complete with a pirate ship’s helm still greets guests in the foyer, as if misplaced from a mini golf course construction-in-progress somewhere. There’s more odd vintage art, photos and jungle-pattern mural panels. A moody bar counter dimly lit in a burgundy tone. You perceive the ghost of a cavernous hotel dining room, even with the fresh energy of a yakitori and modern cocktail and drink list. Like — nobody would design a place like this today; the culinary staff’s only using a small corner of a giant banquet kitchen, inhabiting old bones as a form of historic preservation. It’s wonderfully absurd.
Tenko Izakaya at Lulu’s Downstairs: 107 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, 719-424-7637, 5-11 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday; until 9 p.m., Sunday
Hell, the chef’s name is Rabbit. Actually, that’s his nickname. The 39-year-old’s birth name is Phonephet Southichack. He’s of Laotian heritage, raised in Dallas, where he cut his teeth in the sushi industry beginning in 2010, under the tutelage of a locally lauded, Tokyo-native sushi chef.
“He told me, ‘don’t repeat yourself,’” says Rabbit. “‘Find ways to make your food your own, but keep the traditions and respect the culture.’”
Rabbit arrived in the Springs in early 2018, following seasonal work elsewhere in Colorado, and made his way through Fujiyama and The Rabbit Hole before launching B&R Sushi in mid-2021 as head sushi chef under restaurateur Joe Campana. That outfit was recently closed — converted into a second location of Stir Coffee & Cocktails. Rabbit says he’d been wanting to do his own thing anyway, and on the way toward that goal did a short stint at Chiba Bar — the area’s other cool AF izakaya. Chiba’s chef James Davis introduced him to Lulu’s proprietor Marc Benning, who he later pitched to create Tenko. Benning fronted the capital, but Rabbit says he hopes to be a financial partner in some way down the road and possibly expand the menu, even adding limited sushi; fish is just rather expensive right now, he says, and there’s the hurdle of training up a proficient staff. “I’ve taught a lot of people in the past,” he says.
Meanwhile, Tenko’s menu is a tight one-sheet of a half-dozen appetizers, a tempura dish, a couple gyoza options, grilled skewers of veggies and meats (yakitori and kushiyaki), one ramen bowl and a single dessert. Flip the cardstock over and you get a short list of $12 cocktails, $6 craft beers, $5 shots and commercial brews, $3 “cheap beer” and a range of sake offerings from $8 to $20. I kinda dig the alloverness of a humble drink list that has everything from a Negroni or Dark and Stormy to Becherovka pours (a beloved-by-me Czech digestif),
popular Mexican and Asian beers, seltzer and cider, and the rice wines.
So, naturally, I choose an $8 offering called the Boilermaker, which is a can of Montucky Cold Snack plus a shot of sake. I ask my server — who’s actually venue manager and consummate industry professional Drew LiVigni of currently-on-hiatus Il Vegano bakery — if there’s an intent to mix the two drinks in some way, but he confirms that no, it’s just a basic session beer with a sake back that’s easy and harmonious to drink together. We also get the totally enjoyable Tokyo Drift, which is Tenko’s name for a Manhattan made with Japanese Iwai whisky.
We start with a warming bowl of miso soup for the blustery evening, made in a seasonal (winter) style with bamboo shoots. Then we offset that lightness with a plate of fried pork gyoza, the palate-pleasing, crispy dumplings garnished with scallion threads and a dusting of togarashi (red chile pepper and sesame seasoning), to be dipped in a salty yuzu ponzu sauce.
Next comes the Karubi short rib kushiyaki, two skewers of lavishly fat-marbled, juicy beef prettily plated with microgreen garnish, lemon segments for an acid pop, a tiny anthill of togarashi for added tangy spiciness and a yakiniku sauce, which is a thin barbecue dip Rabbit makes with grated apple and sesame seeds. The grill flavor is spellbinding, emanating in bites with the meat’s natural juiciness, and picking up extra punctuation from tiny blackened edges from the flame’s kiss. It’s a damn good bite, we only wish there was a third skewer to fight over for $13 (but then again … food and labor costs these days, say the chefs).
Lastly, we order the shio ramen, which is a very light and thin broth style (which translates to “salt” ramen), which Rabbit starts by simply dissolving kosher salt in water. He next makes a dashi base with kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes plus shiitake mushrooms, and constructs a chicken broth from roasted bones, green onion and garlic, combining it all with a tiny touch of soy sauce, not enough to even darken the opacity. We find it to be a strikingly subtle sipper, only faint with umami, which allows the featured chashu chicken to completely steal the show, alongside a halved ramen egg, seaweed strips, chive and microgreen garnish, and noodles that have unfortunately clumped some into tougher chewing spots for us. We can get past that though, because the chashu wows us so. Rabbit trusses chicken thighs and braises them in a sweet soy marinade the same way one would treat pork belly chashu, so the tender wheels burst with flavor. In the same way we craved more short rib skewers, we’re sad when the chashu trio too quickly disappears.
Sure, we could have ordered more food to share, in true izakaya fashion, or gotten the green tea cheesecake to finish, or another round of drinks. But instead, we opt to depart with just-satiated bellies, happy in our show of New Year’s restraint, feeling stylish as we step out into the dark cold night.