I know these two kids; we’ll call them C.J. and Jeremy. From a culinary appreciation standpoint, Jeremy is more adventurous than C.J. by a factor of about 10. But like most kids, they’re both very finicky eaters and prefer foods that are a. breaded and deep-fried b. smothered with butter and/or cheese or c. are served in paper bags with toy surprises inside. So the fact that C.J. and Jeremy love to eat at Ken-Ken is nothing short of remarkable. You see, Ken-Ken is a Japanese restaurant.
So how do you get picky American kids to love Japanese cuisine? According to owner Eric Jackson, the food served at Ken-Ken Homestyle Japanese is “Japanese with training wheels.” “Everything is straightforward,” says the affable Jackson. “Everyone thinks Japanese food means raw and wriggling, which just isn’t the case.”
How true. Located just a couple blocks off I-15 in Riverdale, Ken-Ken serves the sort of casual homestyle Japanese cuisine that you find in most Japanese households—not sushi, but cooked dishes like yakisoba, rice bowls, potstickers and the yummy deep-fried pork cutlets called katsu. Eating at Ken-Ken takes me back to when I was a kid. Living in Japan, my family employed a housekeeper who cooked dinner for us once or twice a week. These weren’t dinners of raw fish. Yukiko would make us large steaming bowls of noodles with roasted pork slices on top, or bowls of rice with tender fried beef, or those wonderful katsu pork cutlets (Japan’s answer to wienerschnitzel). Her sautÃ©ed soba noodles with shredded carrots, onions, cabbage and julienned beef was first-rate. I’ve yet to find a restaurant version of yakisoba that is as good as I remember Yukiko’s being, but the yakisoba at Ken-Ken comes close.
Getting kids to try a noodle dish with cabbage and onions is no easy feat. But ask C.J. and Jeremy where they’d like to eat for dinner and the surprising response these days is likely not to be McDonald’s, but Ken-Ken. Part of the reason for this is that kids are visually stimulated by Ken-Ken’s dÃ©cor. It’s a tiny, fast-food-style restaurant, but it’s crammed with those complicated robot models from Japan, cool-looking Japanese anime posters, and there are usually Japanese cartoons or adventure shows playing on the TV monitor, sometimes accompanied by Japanese pop tunes. There are no tatami mats or bamboo or rice paper screens at Ken-Ken. It’s definitely a 21st century operation. Anime movie posters even adorn the restroom walls. “We want to show people a side of Japan they don’t really know—the modern culture,” says Jackson.
(Incidentally, the next time I visit Ken-Ken I’m going to drop off a copy of Bomb the Twist, a great CD by the all-girl Japanese neo-rockabilly/surf/punk trio The 5,6,7,8’s featured in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. That should entice teenagers and auteur Tarantino types to Ken-Ken, along with younger kids.)
Now, I don’t know a Gundam or PokÃ©mon from a Yu-Gi-Oh!, but I do know this: There is something about Japanese high-tech toys, trading cards and videos that kids, especially boys, can’t resist. So at Ken-Ken the kids are sucked in by the Japanese paraphernalia, along with imported exotic candies and soft drinks. And they’re distracted enough by all this stuff that before they know it, they’re spooning yakisoba noodles and Japanese potstickers called gyoza into their little mouths. And because they’re distracted by all that Japanese junk, they’re not focused on how much they don’t want to eat something that isn’t a Happy Meal. So the little critters discover that they actually like a deep-fried pork katsu cutlet over steamed white rice. As Jeremy would say, “It’s awesome.” After all, it tastes just like chicken!
It’s sort of ironic that Eric Jackson would wind up opening a Japanese restaurant, especially given his own initial fears about Japanese food, which were overcome when he went to Japan on an LDS mission in the mid-1980s. “Our first night [in Japan] we went to a small mom-and-pop restaurant. I had a katsudon rice bowl, which was delicious, and right there I thought maybe things would work out after all.” Well, I would say so. They worked out well enough for Jackson to marry his Japanese wife Rika, who along with her sister does most of the cooking at Ken-Ken.
Maybe the best news is that unlike most restaurants with a high level of kid appeal, Ken-Ken serves food that adults can love too. The menu isn’t extensive. There are beef, pork, chicken and vegetable rice bowls, along with the aforementioned katsu pork dishes. One (katsumeshi) is merely a breaded and fried pork cutlet, sliced into strips and served over white rice. The katsudon is that same pork, but served with scrambled eggs, stir-fried onions and teriyaki sauce. And my favorite version is the katsu curry, which is essentially katsumeshi served with a side of curry gravy—your choice of a range from mild to very hot. Each dish comes with a side of sautÃ©ed vegetables and the prices top out at $5.49 for a complete meal. The miso soup is a nice starter, especially for a mere 99 cents. And although Ken-Ken doesn’t serve raw or wriggling fish, sushi lovers can opt for the California roll ($4.39). It’s all very good and very cheap.
But don’t take my word. Just ask Jeremy and C.J.
KEN-KEN HOMESTYLE JAPANESE, 1074 W. Riverdale Road, Riverdale, (801) 392-5808, Open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinner at 11:00