The East Village’s Kenka is a wildly authentic izakaya that might be the most high-functioning example of a themed Japanese restaurant around, an edible amusement park of the fermented, fried, and freaky that gives its own special meaning to that old Gonzo adage, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
It’s also probably the most esoteric and least accessible of the izakayas along this karaoke parlor-lined block of St. Mark’s Place, a neon-lit strip of real estate that would seem right at home in Tokyo most nights of the week. If you can read Katakana, then picking out the characters ケンカ in red on the blue and white marquee is easy, but if you’re looking for a bit of Romanized Japanese, you’ll have to search hard on the signage to find it. (Easier: just look for the swarm of people waiting to get their name on the list below the awning–despite the language barrier, Kenka is not a secret.)
Outside, a growing crowd of people wait in line; some stand for hours for the chance to sit at a two-foot-tall stool at one of the restaurant’s two dozen or so tables. Loiterers with wandering eyeballs may catch the slightly demonic looking (and erect) tanuki statue posted in the entryway. It’s a not-so-subtle message that has little do with Kenka’s food but is telling of the Kenka experience as a whole: a little intimidating like a freaky circus ride, but people are doing it, and it seems like they’re having a good time. So get in the queue, and ignore that certain you-have-to-be-in-the-know vibe that can make an uninitiated meal here a little intimidating.
Inside, the joint is in no short supply of noteworthy details. An entryway illustration depicts an imperial Japanese flag waving above a woman being compromised by red octopuses with one of the mollusks affixed to her crotch. Decor reminiscent of 1970s Japanese pink cinema adds its own particular charm; the place is full of vintage pachinko machines, 1970s exploitation movie posters, relics of vintage Japan, and old advertisements. Graffiti covers the bathrooms, and an inexplicable interior courtyard is adorned with naked mannequins wearing demonic, long-nosed tengu masks. It seems like a place Quentin Tarantino should shoot a scene for his next movie.
That sets the stage for what can feel like a drunken funhouse: pitchers of $8 Sapporo beer hit the tables in the midst of small plates of yakitori, edamame, sashimi slices and Japanese potato salad. The clink of beer glasses and sake thimbles and the sizzle of meats slapping the grill are barely audible above the restaurant’s din, though it’s easier to hear the hostess when she calls, “San mei sama desu!” to announce an arrival of a party of three, as well as the cook staff yelling, “Hai Irrashyaimase!” to welcome them. This is a good sign that the staff is as genuinely Japanese as their food.
The back page of Kenka’s menu features an iconoclastic image of Godzilla wrecking the Tokyo Tower amid illustrations of horrified onlookers. Superimposed on the image is a firm warning to participants in the Kenka experience, written in English and Japanese, which pretty much says that if you drink too much and do something stupid like break dishes, start having sex, or throw up all over the place, the establishment will fine you and summarily eject you from the premises. It’s funny and it’s sort of a joke, but don’t test it–the warning is serious.
Onto the order. Kenka offers some of the cheapest beer prices around paired to Japanese bar food that is nothing like what’s on the list at your aunt from Houston’s favorite Japanese restaurant: there’s no teriyaki chicken nor California rolls nor a single cream cheese, avocado-filled abomination that passes as sushi in most American Japanese restaurants. Actually, there’s not even a piece of rolled sushi on the menu. If you want fish, it’s sliced raw as sashimi or grilled and served with the head, eyes and all.
Instead, the menu is full of standard Japanese pub fare: yakisoba, yakitori, takoyaki, gyoza, sashimi, grilled beef tongue, barbecued cow intestines, miso-soy-basted balls of grilled rice, tonkatsu, Japanese curry, fried shrimp, cold soba, ramen, bowls of rice topped with grilled meat, fried rice, kimchee fried pork … basically, if it can be fried or cooked in a big pot, it might be on the table.
More unusual sideshow attractions include bull’s penis, turkey testicles, maggot fried rice (hey, the U.N. says the world needs to eat more bugs), and the ambiguous “today’s employee meal,” plus carnival game food challenges like the jumbo plate of curry and rice ($25) that’s free if you can eat it in 20 minutes or less. There’s also the Takoyaki Russian Roulette: the bullet in the chamber is a grilled ball of dough stuffed with wasabi that’s hidden amid other identical-looking dumplings that contain a harmless bite of octopus.
When the bill comes at the end of the meal, it arrives with a tiny plastic cup of colored sugar for each person at the table, which you are invited to dump in the vintage cotton candy maker at the entrance and whirl onto a chopstick before you exit. Consider it an edible souvenir to carry down the street, a sign of surviving the ride.