Kenka - 25 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Spring rolls, Pork pancake, Crab omelette, Japanese pickles, House salad, Miso soup, Ramen soup, a Sapporo, a Coke
Kenka translates to "brutal" or "fighting" in Japanese but really it should mean "carnival." From its bizarre mascot of a nippled mutant owl with glowing ruby eyes perching outside like a gargoyle to the swarms of people always amassed at the entrance waiting for seats to the quirky 100+ item menu that includes choices like bull testicles to the raucuous roar of the people sitting at the long wooden tables to the cotton candy machine diners throw their plastic cups of pink sugar into as they leave, this izikaya is a nonstop party every night. All that's missing is a Tom Waits soundtrack and waitresses that dress like characters from Hayao Miyazaki movies.
So I knew Kenka would be fun but I was less convinced that its outlandish idiosyncrasies would translate into outstanding food. Vince and I started simply with spring rolls, which were pretty good. The size of a toilet paper tube, they packed a nice crunch inside and out without being greasy. I washed down their fried shells with an extended gulp of cold Sapporo, which they serve here for an incredible $1.50 a glass.
Next we went weirder, trying what they call a pork pancake. It was fittingly offbeat, with a thin, crispy base slathered with barbecue sauce and topped with ground pork and dried bonito flakes. It's not something I could eat too often but I loved the wacky brazenness of it, both in concept and in taste. It's exactly the kind of food that befits an izikaya, tackling salty, meaty, sweet and original in one dish.
The offbeat adventure continued with a crab omelette, which was also quite tasty. Light and fluffy, with the salty interlude of seafood, it too stood out for its mix of comfort and creativity. While it wouldn't be uncommon in Japan, the omelette with crab isn't something I've encountered in New York before, not even in other izikayas.
Munching on some briny Japanese pickles while we waited for our main dishes, I watched the NYU students around us yelling to each other. I took in the red faces of sake-bombers and the dishwasher's worth of drained beerglasses that had piled up on more ambitious tables. Waitresses were always moving through the aisles, laughing to each other, somehow keeping up with the hectic rhyhtm of small plate dining. For them, it was just another night at the carnival.
My ramen soup arrived and I wove strands of curly noodles around my chopsticks. The firm, flavorful noodles were another winner, more so than the just-average broth they were swimming in. Starting to fill up, I decided to skip the soup and focus on fishing out the noodles, which still made for a satisfying meal. Less satisfying and in fact, the only real disappointment I encountered was my Coke, which tasted more watered down than a Meg Ryan romantic comedy.
Kenka is exactly the kind of place I would've loved if I'd been a college student in New York. For ten to twenty bucks, you can get a lot of unique food and a wild, loud atmosphere that's far closer to Tokyo than Gotham. Perhaps best of all though, you get that aforementioned cup of sugar at the end of your meal. You get to throw it into the cotton candy machine, wind a stick around the perimeter of its inner ring and walk out with a bright pink cloud of sticky fluff. Like a trip to the carnival, it's not necessary but it's oh so sweet. 7/10
Turning Japanese: An article from The Villager on the St. Mark's boom in Japanese food
Viet-Nam Bahn Mi So 1 - 369 Broome St., Nolita
Classic bahn mi, fresh sugarcane juice
Sripraphai - 64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, Queens
Fried Watercress Salad with Chicken, Shrimp and Squid; Saute Drunken Noodles with Pork; Sweet Sausage with Cucumber, Chili and Lime; Fried Fishcakes; String Beans with Shrimp in Spicy Sauce; half a bottle of Chiang Rai lychee wine
A good restaurant can be measured by the number of wry smiles it curls on the edges of diners’ lips. A great restaurant can be detected by wider grins and intermittent nodding that seems to say, “Yes, this is just what I was hoping for.” But an amazing restaurant, those few spots occupying some wholly other realm, can be observed by closed eyes, expressions of Zen-like serenity and a determined shaking of the head that loosely translates to “No, this can’t be this good. No, I don’t want this dish to end. No, it will never be this good again.” So how does my dinner at Sripraphai rate on this scale? So good it could’ve induced whiplash.
Every dish was a wonder. It was no surprise that the fried watercress salad and drunken noodles from previous visits (see Dinner, Feb. 5 and Dinner, Jan. 8) were exceptional, but that all five orders were amazing was a very welcome revelation. Even better, they not only stood confidently on their own, with individual layers of incredible flavors and spices, but they worked together beautifully as well. The multifaceted kaffir lime tang and fishiness of the fried fish cakes complemented and contrasted the grace note of sweetness in the sweet sausage. The lightness of our lychee wine extinguished the delicious heat of the sauce coating the shrimp. The crumbly texture of the watercress was worlds apart from the fiery stalks of beans but they both confirmed Sripraphai’s masterful touch with vegetables.
The atmosphere was quite pleasant too, as Vince and I sat in patio chairs in their recently opened outdoor garden. With the humidity dropping through the course of the meal, the leisurely pace of our feast and the al fresco dining made for an experience that felt periodically European. But anytime I forgot where I was, I scooped a little more sauce onto my coconut rice and felt the heat relight the tip of my tongue. I had more of the delectably crunchy watercress or the incredible wide noodles with ground pork. I piled more of anything left onto my plate, assured it would be a marvel, and set my head shaking in blissful disbelief all over again. 10/10
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Sunday, July 10, 2005