Mandeville: East Causeway Approach @ Causeway Blvd.
The number of sushi bars in the New Orleans area increased dramatically starting in around 1990. It had not quite reached a plateau when Kenko opened in 2000–that was still about ten years away. But that opening and soon-after closing did demonstrate that sushi would never become the new hamburger.
As sushi bars went, Kenko was never one of the great ones. Nor was it substandard. If you ordered a big dinner of sushi and knew what you were doing, you would eat very well there. I dined there about twenty times and can’t recall anything terrible. (Except, of course, for crab stick, fake-crab salad, and the likes of California rolls, all of which are uninteresting no matter where you get them.)
What attracted customers to Kenko was not the food, but the way it was served. An oval sushi bar in the middle of the dining room featured a stainless-steel river that went all the way around the oval. In the rushing water were little boats, each of which carried an order of sushi on a small plate. Customers would reach up and snatch a plate of their liking, and just eat. The waiter would keep up with one’s consumption by multiplying and adding the stack of used plates. The plates’ colors would tell what had been on them.
In the intervals between specific orders from sushi bar customers, the chefs would make up a few of each of the popular items, put them on the appropriate plates, and send them downstream. The demand would be kept up with. It was the fastest sushi delivery in town.
If every person who liked sushi in the Mandeville-Covington corridor were to sit down at Kenko’s sushi river, there might have been–for an hour, maybe–enough people for this idea to make economic sense. I have no doubt that the novelty of the gambit made new sushi fans of a fair number of customers. I did see a few occasions (all early in Kenko’s short history) in which the sushi chefs stayed busy keeping the boats loaded and floating.
But it wasn’t more than a few weeks before those in the know would sit down at the bar, order the sushi they liked directly from the sushi chef, then wait for him to make it. Just like in all other sushi bars. While waiting, they’d watch the tired orders of California roll go around and around the bar, at some point to be thrown away.
I spent a lot of time at Kenko, thanks to the efforts of an aggressive radio salesperson who arranged for my Food Show to broadcast remotely from Kenko once a week for months. Apparently my early talking about the place had brought in almost enough customers to thicken the traffic on Sushi River, to the point that there were sometimes dockside collisions.
But even I run out of gas when I don’t have anything interesting to talk about. There’s only so much to say about boats going around and around a watery oval. I began making up shticks, the oddest of which was my assertion that the best beverage to have with sushi is Dr. Chek–the Winn-Dixie house brand for its imitation of Dr Pepper. The management thought this was brilliant, and for a few weeks all of the few people at sushi dockside were drinking Dr Chek.
During one of these radio shows, I saw Frank and Tommy Wong having lunch at Kenko. They are two of the five brothers who own Trey Yuen, the Chinese restaurant across the street from Kenko, and astute businessmen. Frank summed up the Kenko situation. “It’s a good idea–in New York Chinatown. Or a big high-end mall in L.A., or San Francisco. Not enough people in Mandeville.”
The demise of Kenko was inevitable. I’m not sure it lasted a whole year. The owners either sold it to a new Thai restaurant or created the new Thai place themselves. (I was never quite sure who was the boss at Kenko.) The Thai restaurant was quite good, and spun off Cafe Equator in Metairie before giving up on Mandeville, which wasn’t quite ready for exotic Asian menus.o matter how kicky the concept.