Gaku Homma requires one thing from customers when they walk through Domo Japanese Country Restaurant’s recently reopened doors: patience.
At 73 years old, the chef is still constantly on his feet, cooking, cleaning dishes and greeting guests. “I am happy to be back here, but I am busy,” he said.
Homma reopened Domo, at 1365 Osage St., last month after a year hiatus, but with a smaller menu, limited hours and only four people on staff, two up front and two in the kitchen; that’s compared to the nearly 30 he had before the closure.
“My hands can only hold so much,” Homma said.
Domo closed temporarily in 2021 after a 40-second TikTok video of the restaurant’s beautiful outdoor gardens went viral and led to hundreds of people forming lines around the restaurant, overwhelming Homma and his staff. In September 2022, Homma appeared to have permanently closed up shop, saying he was ready to retire after running the restaurant since 1996.
“I wanted to slow down, and I needed a break after so many busy years in the kitchen,” Homma said. He spent his time off taking a series of trips to Turkey, Nepal and Thailand to teach the practices of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. During his visit to Thailand, he cooked some of Domo’s popular curry, which he has been serving in support of the Monthly Meals Project in Denver for the last 32 years, for children at Bilay House, a humanitarian aid and education facility.
Homma helped found the Bilay House, where children who fled from Myanmar to Thailand live, in 2004 through his foundation Aikido Humanitarian Active Network (AHAN). He’s used profits from Domo, as well as his Nippon Kan martial arts studio next door, to help fund meals, boarding houses and college scholarships for the children.
When Homma decided to “put on his armor once again and get back in the kitchen,” it was to honor Bilay House, as well as his loyal customers over the years, who have left many wishes and messages tied to a string hanging from a gazebo in Domo’s sprawling garden.
“People need me, and I feel happy when I’m needed, especially at my age,” Homma said.
Homma’s customers are happy to see the sensei back in his robes, rolling carts of steaming food and tea around the dimly lit restaurant, which is covered in Japanese artifacts.
Larry and Sue Reichert have been coming to Domo since it opened 27 years ago (was still serving red bean ice cream in thimbles after every meal). They even donate to Homma’s foundation.
“When Domo closed, the story wasn’t over,” Sue said. “Now this time, he can go out the way he wants to.” The Reicherts have resumed their weekly visits to the restaurant, ordering their favorite veggie curry, udon and spicy maguro. “I used to travel the country often, and I’ve tried Japanese food in numerous cities, and nothing comes close to this,” Larry said. “I tried making some of his dishes at home with his cookbook, but nothing compares,” Sue added.
Domo is only serving lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., as opposed to the full-service dinners it offered before, and there are no reservations. There’s no longer a daily line that wraps all the way around to Colfax Avenue, but Homma said Saturdays are especially busy.
The menu is much more simple with no more of the popular ramen noodles or sushi. Instead, Homma is using recipes from his childhood growing up in the Japanese countryside, as well as old-school methods, like cooking out of a hanging pot over a fire.
While sitting at the low wooden tables with cushioned tree stump stools, guests can slurp on a bowl of Japanese curry, Domo’s most popular menu item. Or if they prefer to sit outside in the garden, Homma recommends the Nabeyaki Udon, a Japanese winter staple with shrimp tempura, kamaboko fish cake, fried tofu, mushrooms and noodles.
“Japanese people don’t only eat sushi and ramen,” Homma said. “My mission is to teach people about some of the original and simple food that Japanese people have been eating for centuries.”
Eventually, Homma plans to bring back select menu items over time and add a dinner service when he’s adequately staffed.
“At 73, I thought I wanted to retire, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Homma said.