25 St. Mark’s Place (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
It was two summers ago that I first passed through the sliding doors of Kenka, the intentionally bizarre izakaya on St. Marks Place that’s better suited for tripping on acid than dining.
So it should have come as no surprise that, after barely touching the North Korean spicy raw beef over rice—I skipped the cow penis, turkey testicles and fried grizzle—I found myself seeing tracers and not caring which kanji on the restroom doors stood for “men” because my stomach was jerking like a rodeo bull.
But maybe it wasn’t the food. Maybe it was the sing-songy Okinawan music blaring through the crackling rafter-mounted loudspeakers. Or maybe because the specials menu bore a samurai slicing a woman’s naked buttocks with a kitana blade, blood dripping from the saw lines. Or maybe it was payback from The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. (I should make clear, I did not knowingly ingest any mind-altering substances other than a few sips of Sapporo.)
Whatever the cause, I was sick as a dog drunk on chocolate milk. More disturbingly, I felt I had wandered into a particle collider and reality was ending.
Still red-eyed and shaking, I walked around the block until my dinner guests got the check, along with Kenka’s well-known meal-ending treat, a plastic pill-cup of fuchsia powder for pouring into the cotton-candy machine in front of the restaurant.
After months of changing my route to avoid St. Marks, I fulfilled my promise a couple weeks ago to return to Kenka, charged up like MacArthur landing in Manila.
If this was the vortex of hell, I would fight every demon.
I sat in the back, between a row of pachinko machines and a wall lined with 1970s porno posters from Japan.
The music sounded like the early experimentation with recording technology in Japan that gave us “The Chipmunks.”
Planning to order vegetarian, I didn’t have to worry about reengaging with the North Korean specialty.
I started instead with a small bowl of hijik ($3), chilled pan-fried black seaweed pieces that looked like baby bloodworms.
The strips were tossed with shredded carrot, white taro slices that could have passed for sashimi (the waiter assured me they weren’t) and little globs of tofu, all in a briny puddle.
From the specials, I tried the cheese spring rolls ($4.50), which were glistening fried wonton skins housing stretchy white cheese and oil reserves. To my American sensibilities, they paired nicely with beer, but I wondered if in Tokyo they would have seemed a novelty.
In Japan, okoge, the rice scraped from the bottom of the cooker, is considered a delicacy. I was impressed that Kenka managed grilled rice balls ($5) that were nuggets with exteriors completely made of the stuff. The outside of the ball was crisp and smoky, and it sealed steaming white grains inside. One of the ball’s surfaces was spread with sweetish miso paste that lent it a flavor similar to toast slicked with butter and jelly.
In the absence of a cosmic showdown, an out-of-body experience, a subatomic break with space time or vomiting during the course of the meal (I even survived a Japanese version of “When You’re Happy, and You Know It” that sounded like a eunuch chorus), I got back to pondering what set off the whirling feeling last time. It crossed my mind that maybe I had tasted the anger of the cow whose flanks was served over rice. I had buckled from the sickness that the animal felt at death.
I was increasingly sounding like El Yuyo, I knew, but it seemed a fair explanation. The cow had died simply for my palette’s pleasure. I can’t justify inflicting the pain and death that I hope to escape on another creature just for the flavor of its flesh. I could not do this anymore than I could have intercourse with a 9-year-old, dismissing my evil act by talking about tightness.
Is there a tactile sensation that’s worth another’s pain? No.
And as much as I can hear a dog yelp if I kick it, I know an animal feels pain. As much as I can watch a fish on a hook writhe, I know it wants to live.
I felt satisfied with this answer.
Read more reviews of vegetarian eats at www.whorebivore.com