25 Saint Marks Place, right in the heart of Saint Marks, lies Kenka. Considering how fast paced, festive, and crowded Saint Marks can be, it is extremely easy to miss the restaurant if you are not actively looking for it, as it’s in Japanese. The sidewalk forms into a set of concrete stairs that leads down to Kenka, located below the infamous thrift shop, Search and Destroy.
The ideal business demands capital and customers, but a good business not only draws in loyal customers, but cultivates those that enter the establishment, instilling them with a little culture, tradition and morality.
Kenka is known as an izakaya, a type of Japanese drinking establishment that focuses primarily on their alcoholic beverages and serve food solely to accompany the drinks. It is the perfect place to wind down after a hard day’s work with some friends and co-workers to enjoy happy hour and the Japanese tapas-style dining.
Both the outside décor and in are authentically Japanese. Outside of the restaurant are a few kanji lanterns and inside, hanging on some of the walls are traditional scrolls, a painting of a samurai with his sword drawn out and countless Japanese magazines at the entryway free for the taking. However, authentic their decorations are, Kenka is anything, but fancy. Amongst the pictures of types of sashimi and ramen in their menu are random pictures of naked women who practice rope bondage known as shibari.
As aforementioned, the food accompanies the drinks, so all foods are reasonably priced, they are served in small portions as appetizers to be ordered in abundance, so that everyone shares and samples what is ordered. They have a variety of Japanese beer, and over 50 different types of sake. One pitcher of Sapporo is only $8 and draft beer is only $1.50. Whether you are getting udon, yakitori, or onigiri, all foods are cooked in either street or home style.
“The decor of this place is definitely unique. I’ve never been to a restaurant as Kenka, it screams pride and an unreserved acceptance from the pictures displayed in the open. Some may portray it as offensive or raunchy, but I think it can be considered artistically tasteful,” says Rosario Chines, a frequent customer of Kenka.
Additionally, for their epicurious customers, Kenka offers unusual side attractions and food challenges, such as Takoyaki Roulette, or your choice of grilled beef tongues, bull’s penises and turkey testicles.
As lewd as their menu is, the staff is traditionally polite and welcoming in contrast. The seating arrangements are an alignment of low tables and small wooden chairs close together which creates a sense of community, as well as wicker baskets to put your belongings in; so whether you’re a large party or having a one-on-one, you feel a sense of togetherness and comfort.
Yuji Umeki, owner of Kenka, opened the establishment in 2004, assisting the gentrification of St. Marks, contributing to what they now call Little Tokyo. What was once an experimental punk district, filled with bars and tattoo shops, is now the home to a large growing community of Japanese natives and restaurants. Little do many know, Search and Destroy is also owned by Umeki, to keep a little punk flavor in St. Marks.
John, a worker of ten years for Kenka said, “In Japan, we’re innate with treating one another with respect and kindness. Loyalty, family and respect is important. It goes hand-in-hand when you’re working in a restaurant because it gives customers a better experience when we acknowledge those three things.”
The establishment opens at 6 p.m., drawing in large crowds of hungry NYU students and businessmen. There is always a waiting list, unless you make prior reservations. The employees of Kenka habitually greets customers that enter and leave the establishment. It is a Japanese etiquette to show appreciation, by bowing in recognition of someones presence. Most of the returning customers find adoration in their sincere hospitality.
As cozy as Kenka may be, located in the back of their menu is the often heard expression, “You Break It, You Buy It” policy, meaning whatever you break, you’ll be charged $5 for each item. It also states no fighting, no sexual activities or throwing up, or else, you will be removed from the premises and fined $20 as a clean up fee.
Sharry Luong, a student of NYU said, “I solely come back because I enjoy the vibes and what they represent. Their aura, is welcoming and intimate. I’ve been coming here because it’s so comforting and affordable, it’s certainly environment friendly for students who are on a budget.”
Kenka has built a strong reputation for themselves over the years, as an inexpensive, orthodox establishment. Their amicable ambiance has drawn in audiences from not only New York, but has tourists coming back for more.
In 2014, Umeki and his partner, Panya Ongkeo opened Beron Beron, which was once a well known authentic Japanese spot called Sapporo East that was established in 1983.
Remodeling the exterior with similar ideograms as Kenka, many go in thinking Sapporo East has resumed business. Keeping most of the original menu as Sapporo East, Umeki and Ongkeo picks up where the previous owner has left off, offering the same authentic and ethical consistency as Kenka.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for quite some time, I dine in both of Yuji’s restaurants because I love their selection of Japanese dishes. Sapporo East was originally my go-to, but when they closed down and reopened as Beron Beron, I noticed they hired the same workers that use to work there and I really admire that,” said Christopher Dubois, an old local of the East Village.
In hopes to keep the Japanese customs alive, Umeki’s work ethics has not gone unnoticed by his devoted supporters and workers. Being one among the many Japanese restaurants that reside in the flourishing East Village, Umeki considers the other restaurants as neighbors with the same opportunity to share their little piece of Japan. Whether it be ramen, sake or sushi, the principle behind his work, is to raise morality and bring closeness in the community.