A few notches above fast food in terms of service and food quality, fast-casual eateries are getting all the love these days. The best ones marry the skill and execution of a full-service restaurant with the convenience and efficiency of a fast-food concept. The worst ones are sloppy and disorganized, leaving diners confused, dissatisfied or downright angry.
In recent months, we've observed local startups tackle fast-casual versions of Indian, tacos, burgers and vegan fare. We can now add build-your-own sushi and hibachi to the mix. In early July, Kenko opened up in University Circle, near the busy intersection of Euclid and Mayfield. The shop is an extension of Shinto Japanese Steakhouse in Strongsville, which has been around for more than 10 years. The goal was to take some of the best elements of the full-service suburban restaurant and streamline them into a faster, cheaper, urban model.
For the most part they have succeeded, avoiding common pitfalls like bad layout, poor training, understaffing and stale foods slumbering away for days on end. Kenko isn't without its glitches, but from where I'm standing they've crafted a winning concept and are executing it like a well-seasoned operator.
Kenko is a "rolls and bowls" concept, with the menu largely divided into two main categories: sushi rolls and teriyaki bowls. Diners can order one of a dozen predesigned rolls off the roster or go off script and invent their own from literally dozens of options ranging from raw and cooked seafood to veggies, sauces and toppings. The "bowls" process is a lot more straightforward, with guests simply selecting their protein and starch.
Kenko's biggest hitch is the line-up system. Sushi must be ordered in one spot, bowls and everything else in another. Stick around the shop for a few minutes and you'll see people ping pong back and forth when informed of their error. Kenko's biggest asset is its large and helpful staff, which gently points first timers in the right direction.
If you're getting sushi — off the menu or build-your-own — start on the left-hand side. Smaller rolls like spicy tuna, California and crab salad are $7 to $8, unless you want them deep fried, which will set you back another buck. Larger specialty rolls like the Spider, deep-fried soft shell crab, cukes and avocado, or the Little Delicious, a tempura-fried fan favorite filled with spicy tuna, cream cheese and avocado and doused in BBQ eel sauce, run a little higher at $10 to $13. While not quite up to the level of upmarket sushi places, the rolls are tidy, fresh and flavorful. One issue that pops up time and again is sparse or uneven rice, a result of the automatic rice sheeting machines.
After ordering your sushi (or if skipping it altogether) step right to one of the cashiers. This is where you'll order starters, bowls and beverages and pay for everything, including the sushi. When the order is fully assembled, they'll call your name for pick up. Regardless what you order and where you intend to eat it, all foods are packaged to go in plastic containers. And no, Kenko has no recycling bins. What they do have is two large and attractive dining rooms, including a great window counter that looks out onto busy Euclid Avenue.
Appetizers are kept to a minimum, with decent miso soup ($1.95), warm steamed edamame dusted with salt ($2.95), cold seaweed salad ($3.95) and shrimp-filled potstickers ($4.95).
Teriyaki bowls are built around "hibachi-style" chicken, shrimp or beef ($8.95 for one, $10.95 for a combo). They are tossed in a slightly sweet sauce with cabbage, carrot and broccoli and served atop white or brown rice. For $1.50 extra, you can swap the rice for thick, chewy udon noodles, which happen to go great with the well-seasoned beef. Crisp steamed broccoli, a highlight of a beef bowl, was noticeably absent from a subsequent shrimp bowl. Bowls come with a side of creamy "Yum Yum" sauce, but the Sriracha seems a better fit.
Cleveland bubble tea fans have their first true taste of Kung Fu Tea, the Taiwanese treat that's sweeping the nation. Reason enough for many students to visit Kenko, the franchise dispenses highly customizable beverages with as many possible outcomes as the design-your-own sushi. It's a bit of an art form, with customers selecting tea, milk tea or punch flavors, degrees of sweetness, toppings and the ever-important tapioca pearls, or boba. The drinks are popped into two separate machines — one for shaking, one for sealing the cup up tight — and served with a pointy straw that pierces the foil lid. The chewy, gooey balls fly right up the fat straw, making them a delicious choking hazard.