Here’s good news for fans of Ken Ken Ramen, the dearly departed Mission District standby and perennial member of Eater’s Essential Ramen of San Francisco list. A year and a half after closing the ramen shop, chef Takahiro Hori is back in business with Konomama, a cozy new restaurant at 4601 Geary Boulevard in the Inner Richmond. This time, however, instead of bouncy Hakata-style noodles, the chef has decided to focus on another category of Japanese comfort food: curry.
Konomama quietly opened three weeks ago as a collaboration between Hori and Ramen Underground owner Yoshuke Takahashi, who ran the previous restaurant in this location, Back Room, which was also known for its Japanese curry. But the space has been given a total facelift, with a quaint chalkboard sign board out front, an abundance of light-colored wood, and a vintage record player that plays a steady stream of jazz and Afrofunk. It all looks and feels very chic and Japanese. Hori, meanwhile, is taking on most of the day-to-day chef duties.
Hori says he and his previous business partner decided to close Ken Ken last April for one simple reason: Hori wanted to have a baby, and working the line at a hectic, high-volume ramen restaurant wasn’t really conducive to his idea of fatherhood. “I wanted to change my life,” Hori says. So he took a year off to go backpacking through parts of Africa and Europe he’d never had a chance to visit before. And, soon enough, his wife got pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s now-five-month-old son.
With that in mind, Konomama marks Hori’s return to the restaurant scene, but at a bit of a slower pace and most important, Hori says, with a more health-oriented approach. The name “konomama” means “as it is” — a reference to what Hori sees as a return to the original, older Japanese style of cooking and eating, which tended to feature a lot more different kinds of vegetables instead of having a single main dish that you eat with rice.
That said, Hori says the food he’s serving at Konomama could hardly be described as traditional, strictly speaking. Because of his emphasis on both roasted and pickled vegetables, each curry plate is a veritable kaleidoscope of brilliant oranges and greens and reds, with a mound of purple-stained white and wild black rice, and a small portion of house-made edamame hummus — and tortilla chips — for good measure. It’s a far cry from the plate of mostly brown food that’s more typical of a Japanese curry shop.
The curry itself, on the other hand, is more straightforward. There’s the “original” curry, which Hori says is very similar to what he ate at home when he was growing up in Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture. He makes it with a chicken stock base and 12 or 13 different spices, all slowly simmered for six or seven hours. He also makes a vegan curry with a kelp dashi base. To each basic curry plate, customers can add their choice of toppings, which run the gamut from standard pork katsu, to deep-fried seasonal vegetables, to what Hori says is akin to a Southern-style barbecue pork rib.
Hori says he’s aiming to create a relaxing atmosphere at the restaurant — the kind of place where customers should feel comfortable just listening to music and lingering over a cup of coffee in the afternoon. Naturally, given Hori’s own recent initiation into fatherhood, Konomama is also meant to be an extremely kid- and baby-friendly place, fully equipped with changing tables in the bathrooms and plenty of room to park a stroller between tables.
Konomama is open Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.