Kare-Ken means “curry house” in Japanese, but this new spot on Jones Street is more like a studio apartment than a house.
The tiny spot only has room for a long counter that seats about eight, so most of its business is take-out from a window next to the entrance. Opened in November, Kare-Ken serves mostly people in the neighborhood, which borders the Tenderloin and Nob Hill.
Growing up in Hawaii, I often ate Japanese curry because of the influence of the islands’ large Japanese-American population. Japanese curry is more mild than Indian curry, and doesn’t have the coconut milk associated with Thai curry. Often a golden brown color, it’s traditionally served with the Japanese staple pork tonkatsu, or breaded fried pork cutlet.
While I generally avoid deep-fried foods, I can’t avoid it when I look for Japanese curry, and Kare-Ken’s menu doesn’t help because most of its limited menu is filled with fried pork, chicken, or vegetables – all katsu or tempura style. I had to try the traditional katsu curry ($8.50), and the breaded pork cutlet was perfectly fried, with crispy breading that wasn’t greasy and the pork tender and moist inside.
Kare-Ken serves the curry on the side so you can pour as much curry onto your katsu as you like. You can ask for the level of spice, from mild to medium to spicy and fire-alarm hot spicy. The young and friendly owners are willing to mix the spice to your desire, even adjusting the curry after you’ve tried a bit.
When it first opened, Kare-Ken’s curry was disappointingly thin, despite the nice golden color. I started with mild, and it was too mild, so I could have gone up on the heat. But after a couple of recent visits, I found that they’ve adjusted the curry, now rich and thick. And I make sure I ask for medium when I get the curry, which is just right for me.
Side note: The curries come pretty plain, but you can add extra toppings like corn, boiled egg, or onion rings. All the curries come with sides of pickled cabbage, a brilliant deep red color that I really enjoyed for the crunch and pickled flavor.
Along with the pork katsu curry, I’ve also tried the chicken katsu ($8.50) and the dry beef curry ($8). The dry beef curry is my favorite, where the beef ragu is blended with the curry sauce. The ragu was tasty and comforting. It was also served with huge onion rings, which I didn’t eat. (I did take a bite to see what it was like, and the onion ring shattered like glass, although it was a bit greasy to the touch.)
I’ve never been able to try the shrimp curry or meatball curry – both items that are officially on the menu but never seem to be available when I visit. There’s also a vegetable curry, and you can get it with fried vegetables or steamed.
The limited availability of some of the items is a reflection of the tiny space. With little storage space, Kare-Ken can’t stock a lot of ingredients, so they have to keep the menu limited to certain items.
The tiny space has caused growing pains in other ways as well. For example, all the food is served in take-out recyclable clamshells. Initially, I thought it was a bit odd, and then I heard they were waiting for their plates and utensils to arrive soon after opening. But after a few months, they were still using the take-out containers, even when dining in at the counter. The explanation is the tiny space won’t have room for the clean dishes after they’re washed.
A plan for late-night dining for the bar crowd (it’s surrounded by bars like Bar Adagio and Bourbon and Branch) got vetoed after a few weeks because they would sometimes run out of inventory and couldn’t offer anything for the late-night crowd.
The enthusiastic owners are trying to deal with these growing pains, working on negotiating more storage room.
For now, Kare-Ken serves Japanese-style curry to a dedicated neighborhood crowd and to people like me who’s willing to make the extra trip for a bit of comfort food.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Kare-Ken, 552 Jones St., San Francisco. PH: 415.292.5273. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. No reservations, cash only. www.kare-ken.com