Kenka: A Taste of Japan in NYC
By Cindy Yuong, AOS Baking & Pastry
A wild and eccentric Japanese Izakaya restaurant can be found in St. Mark’s street of NYC’s East Village. Walking along the street at night, the restaurants along the strip seemed quite average, but once you got to Kenka, you could not pass by without at least pausing and looking back. The exterior of the restaurant is quite something – a huge blue sign spells out Kenka in Japanese, but a unique raccoon statue with glowing red eyes stands at the right side with a cotton candy machine and a head in the hole picture board on the left. A huge crowd gathers outside the doors waiting to get in.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, it only has a clipboard with a sign-up sheet in front of the doors. The host walks out once a table is cleared to check on the list and seat the next guests. During my wait, people spoke of previous visits to the restaurant, saying the wait could be either extremely short or long, but they would always come back for the food and atmosphere.
The interior may be a little more extreme than the exterior. Vintage Japanese flags, posters, pachinko machines and more line the walls of the restaurant as slightly obnoxious music blasts through the speakers. However, the experience is truly authentic as the host announces the party’s entrance and the entire staff yells “Irashaimase!” in welcoming just as they do when entering any building in Japan. Seating includes tables and benches in addition to countertop spots by the kitchen. Baskets are provided to place one’s belongings in at the foot of the table.
At Kenka, the menu itself is ginormous and action packed with a movie poster like specials booklet and items written in both Japanese and English. Kenka’s special menu offers a 20-minute jumbo curry eating challenge along with the likes pork brains and fried udon of intestines. Moving onto their regular menu, the dishes showcase Japan’s best street food offerings and classics of the nation. No sushi rolls can be seen, but rather authentic sashimi combos, grilled noodles and meat – anything ending in -yaki, fried foods, stews, and hot pots line the page with impressive pictures. Sashimi, oden, gyoza, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, teriyaki, katsudon – you name it, they have it. The bar also has extensive offerings including unique cocktail combos and an $8 pitcher of beer that restaurant goers rave about. Once ordered, the waiter brings the ticket over to the kitchen, calls out the order in Japanese, and gets an enthusiastic call back from the chefs.
When I found Kenka, I was in search of a Japanese restaurant to satisfy an okonomiyaki craving. Having had one from the land of okonomiyaki in Osaka, Japan, I definitely had high expectations for it. The okonomiyaki, which translates to “grilled as you like it,” is a Japanese savory pancake layered with batter, shredded cabbage, slices of meat, and various topppings, – came out on a sizzling plate, topped with bonito flakes, pickled red ginger, delicious okonomiyaki sauce, and a warm mayonnaise drizzle. It was not in completely distinct layers like the original one I had, but rather was all mixed into one batter and cooked. The pancake was thick and soft with shredded carrots, cabbage, and onion, strewn with chewy squid pieces, thin pork slices, and accented with umami filled toppings. Not what I had expected, but it hit the spot in all the right places.
Besides the okonomiyaki, I had also ordered a few other sides. The Gyu Tataki – rare beef with ponzu – came out first with a beautiful plate presentation: grilled beef atop raw shredded onions, with minced garlic, micro greens, sliced lemon and lettuce on the side. The slight bitterness of the garlic balanced out the tender meat splashed in ponzu sauce. Hotate Butter – grilled scallops in butter – was absolutely delicious. Perfectly crisp, large scallops steamed in its dish before melting in the mouth with its richness. To cleanse the palate, I had a side of Asa Zuke – traditional pickled vegetables: radish, carrot, cucumber and cabbage as I ate through the night. However, the fun doesn’t end right with the meal. With the check comes a small cup of candy sugar to spin on a chopstick in the cotton candy machine outside the door to take along as a souvenir.
Was it worth it to have found Kenka? Yes. Would it have been more fun with other people? Absolutely. The late night atmosphere of Kenka is not to be missed with all your friends looking for an adventure in the streets of East Village. Bring a hungry crowd, partake in a few wild food challenges while having a blast, and experience a small bit of Japan through the wild and crazy charms of Kenka. Do not miss out!