WHO’S IN CHARGE In their separate travels, Larry Leibowitz and Tim Haigh each became devotees of Asian street food: cheap, casual meals, usually served in a large bowl with noodles.
Two months ago, they opened their own version of an Asian street-food joint in downtown Salem, called Kokeshi. The cavernous place has been a hit from the start, pulling a diverse crowd of diners into what was once an ambulance depot.
Kokeshi is not a place for Asian-food purists. “Ramen’s a fairly young food, not more than 100 years old, so there’s not much of a rulebook for it,” says Leibowitz of their mainstay Japanese noodle.
This has given the kitchen plenty of leeway. Diners can order the Colonel Sanders ($14), for example, which is fried chicken and wavy noodles in a spicy pork broth with seaweed, egg, and Thai basil. Or the octopus hot dog ($10), a thick chunk of grilled tentacle on a roll with daikon slaw and sriracha mayonnaise.
The restaurant’s name refers to a traditional Japanese wooden doll. Two years ago, Leibowitz and Haigh opened a pizza place around the corner and called it Bambolina, “baby doll” in Italian. Both names are a nod to their children; Leibowitz and Haigh each have two young daughters.
THE LOCALE Kokeshi is an entertaining mashup of industrial chic and Asian pop style. Massive water pipes, left over from an industrial laundry operation here, have been painted fire engine red. Paper parasols hang upside down from the high ceiling. The kitchen is a converted shipping container with a long slot carved in it for the chefs to pass food. Neon spray paint and hanging plants drape the container’s steel sides.
The Friday night our party of five visited, the place was packed by 6. After a short wait (we had neglected to make reservations), we were seated on benches at a particle-board table beside a glass-paned garage door. One of our seats was actually a repurposed tree trunk.
Across from the bar, a vintage kung-fu movie played silently on a wall. Swag for sale included caps with Kokeshi’s cutesy doll logo. It was Mad Max meets Hello Kitty.
ON THE MENU Kokeshi’s concise menu is mostly appetizers and “shared plates” or noodle dishes and soups. A shared plate isn’t necessarily a lot of food, just something you’re likely to want to pass around, which the benches and picnic-style tables encourage. Nothing on the current menu costs more than $17.
Beet pickled egg ($3.50) sounded odd, but it was one of our favorite pass-arounds. Sweet and vinegary at the same time, the purplish egg was almost too pretty to eat. An order of spicy pole beans with sesame seeds and spicy sambal dressing ($6) also was satisfying and not so hot that it made us sweat.
As for our entrees, we loved them all. A serving of Thai curried chicken with jasmine rice ($15) came bathed in a delicious pool of curry sauce with green beans, baby corn, and cilantro. The burst of fresh herbs was a nice surprise. An order of Korean beef short ribs with spicy cucumber, kimchi, and bunches of enoki mushrooms ($17) was a treat. The shreddy, slightly sweet beef contrasted with the dollop of pickled veggies for a pleasing sweet-and-sour effect.
From the noodles and soup section, we savored the slow-roasted pork-belly ramen with soft egg ($11), a sort of bacon-and-egg soup. A bowl of Vietnamese noodles ($12.50) with chili broth and ground pork was likewise hearty and flavorful.
Kokeshi’s “Faux Pho” ($13.50) was an earthy bowl of miso mushroom tea with egg, bok choy, and three kinds of Asian mushroom. (One of us was just back from Hanoi, where pho is pronounced “fuh,” but our friendly and informative server advised us: “In Salem, it’s fine to call it Foh-Foh.”)
We finished by sharing the menu’s three desserts ($4.50 each), all unusual, all enjoyable: black sesame seed ice cream, coconut rice pudding, and mango sorbet. Our only real complaint was the fortunes in our cookies. ‘‘Confucius says: Eating at Kokeshi often makes you do amazing things.’’ The fortune cookie bar is low, but that one failed to make it over.
Kokeshi, 41 Lafayette St., Salem. 978-594-4197, www.kokeshirestaurant.com
Coco McCabe and Doug Stewart can be reached at email@example.com.