Masturbation is strictly forbidden at Kenka. That’s just one of many rules at this East Village Japanese restaurant. I hesitate to imagine the unruly patrons it must attract, but the food is surprisingly good.
In Japan, Kenka would be called an izakaya, or drinking establishment. I don’t recall seeing another one like it in New York. The tables are low-slung, with chairs about eighteen inches above the floor. Instead of a coat check, there are piles of open wicker baskets; you take one to your table, and put your coat inside it. The glossy menu is covered with shiny photos of the food, described in Japanese with English translations that are often unhelpful, misspelled, or grammatically incorrect. There are about fifty sakes on offer, all with photos, all inexpensive, and all available by the glass.
The décor is unfancy, but authentic, including a row of Japanese pinball machines (above, left). You might have trouble finding the restrooms, as the only signs are the Japanese pictograms for a man and a woman. My friend Kelly guessed that the one that looks like its legs are crossed would be the ladies’ room.
Then, there are the rules:
In case you can’t read them, here are the highlights, all transcribed literally:
- No sake-bomb at all.
- 20% of S.C. will be includes company more than 7 people
- Grafitti or tagging only in japanese. No other language at all.
- No fighting, masturation, having sex or drugs, you will get ejected.
- In the event that a customer breaks any dish or glass on purpose, we will be forced to charge that customer $5 for each thing broken
- In the event that a customer has had too much to drink and vomits outside of the restroom, we will be forced to charge that customer $20 for the cleaning up and inconvenience to our other customers.
- Follow Kenka’s regulation!! Break our regulations or you’ll be thrown out.
Sure enough, both restrooms were full of grafitti, all in Japanese. (The restroom doors are shown above; can you guess which one is the ladies’?)
The menu has about a hundred items, most of them small plates, representing just about every variety of Japanese cuisine, including pig intestines, bull testicles, and turkey penises. (The linked version—the only one I could find online—is incomplete.) We weren’t feeling quite that adventurous, and ordered a more conventionally.
Large, fresh oysters (above left) were a salty delight. We paired them with deep-fried oysters (above right), which were just as enjoyable.
The next item we had was, I believe, the grilled rice balls (above left). We enjoyed their candied sticky flavor, but they were tough to handle with chopsticks. I barely managed it by “stabbing” mine, and eating it like a lollipop on a stick. Fried rice (above right) had a bounty of fresh-tasting ingredients.
The yakitori platter (above left) was the only mild disappointment, as all of the meats seemed tough and overcooked. But everything on the sashimi platter (above right) was first-rate, including a grade of luscious fat-laden tuna (roughly 11:00 on the photo) that I hadn’t seen before.
Service wasn’t fancy, but it was more than adequate for a casual restaurant of this calibre, and all of the food was attractively plated. I didn’t note individual prices, but the total for all of the food shown, plus one drink apiece, was $77 before tax.
As we were leaving, the server gave us a small dixie-cup of pink sugar. Outside the door, there’s a make-it-yourself cotton candy machine. That tiny helping of sugar didn’t make much cotton candy (nor was I hungry for it), but it’s yet another quirk that puts Kenka in a category by itself.
Kenka (25 St. Marks Place near Second Avenue, East Village)
Ambiance: one of a kind