Kaba Curry brings hippo-sized flavor to Japanese soul food
Thu, Nov 1, 2012 (8 p.m.)
Photo: Christopher DeVargas
When I tried real ramen, I thought I’d found the home-style pinnacle of Japanese cuisine (less elegance, more slurping). But its ultimate comfort dish is—wait for it—curry. It’s milder and tangier than Thai and Indian versions, with the stick-to-your-ribs richness of stew. It won't win any beauty contests, but the brown stuff’s flavor haunts your dreams.
Las Vegas’ Japanese curry scene used to be limited to a handful of items on a handful of menus. Kaba Curry changed that when it opened September 10 in a funky food plaza on West Charleston as the first local spot dedicated to “Japanese soul food.” It took two American guys with no culinary training five months to perfect the sauce, and a Japanese girl with no love for curry one bite to be converted. The concocting started about a year and a half ago, in the home kitchens of Kaba co-founders Tnes Madolora and his buddy Anthony Nicholson. The idea was to mimic the distinctive taste of international curry chain CoCo Ichibanya, which Tnes got into growing up in Hawaii and working in Japan, and Anthony frequented while living in his native California.
“Throughout the whole process extra flavors were being put in. So we were getting that tang, we reached it, but I think different types of flavors were appearing,” Tnes says, sharing only one key ingredient: green apple. Anthony adds that he never got tired of sampling the test batches. “We really, really, really wanted it to be that delicious,” Anthony says, “and it speaks for itself.”
- KABA CURRY
- 6475 W. Charleston Blvd., 589-0370.
- Monday-Thursday, noon-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
- Grub, Guzzle & Groove party November 3, 5-10 on the sidewalk; 5-1:30 a.m. inside the plaza, with pop-up food guest Hawaiian Hotdogs and live entertainment by Natural Heights, HaleAmano, ForTwentyDaze and guest DJs.
It spoke loudly to Maki Mikami, the third Kaba musketeer. She was a friend of the guys, and they asked her to try their perfected sauce at a house party. She politely explained that, despite being from Japan, she wasn’t a fan of its curry (or any curry for that matter). They insisted theirs was “super-good,” so she took a bite.
“This was the only curry I like. It is still curry, but there were so many flavors inside,” Maki says, laughing at the thought that neither she nor her brother ever liked their mother’s attempt at the dish. This one had that special Japanese tang, but it also had elements of Tnes’ Filipino heritage and Anthony’s Asian-influenced (he has half-Japanese relatives) Californian palate. The sauce was its own animal, making kaba—the Japanese word for hippo—a fitting name.
The hippo has long been a special totem for Tnes. He’s a fixture in the local hip-hop community, known for his clothing line, HippoEsthetics, and for co-founding cultural fusion movement the Waterhole Kings (another hippo reference) around music, fashion and art. The network built through both has been a supportive force for Kaba, which took off when the partnership was cemented between Tnes, Anthony and Maki.
“She basically made us believe we could actually do it. Before she came along we had zero knowledge about the food industry,” Tnes says. Maki’s knowledge comes from her formal study of hospitality at UNLV. That’s why she came to the States, and she was in the process of moving back to Japan when the Kaba opportunity came to a boil. Most of her belongings had already shipped to her parents when she made the decision to stay. They still disapprove, though Maki is determined to prove herself to them and to the local Japanese business community.
“I know we can do it, but I can’t say it back,” she says, explaining that in Japanese culture, the younger generation doesn’t argue with elders. “I can’t tell them I’m doing good until we do succeed.”
Anthony’s family has been skeptical, too. They were used to him working "regular" jobs that were stable but uninspired, at places like Walmart and Tire & Lube Express. One day, a coworker pulled him aside and asked why he wasn't doing something "better." He didn't have a good answer.
"From there it just stemmed off to me doing a lot of the festivals, slowly pushing that type of lifestyle away, walking into something more of what I can do for myself, bringing something for other people to enjoy, like our food. ... This is the only thing I know how to cook, but I know how to cook it really, really good actually. It just shows what you can do when you put your mind to it. … They’re starting to see it,” he says of his family. “My uncle called me—I haven’t spoken to this guy in two years—and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing? I see it on Facebook. You own a restaurant now or what?’ They’re starting to see what type of person I am.”
Tnes was the only one with experience leaping headlong into business ventures, and his family has always said that as long as he’s happy, they’ll be proud. So his confidence was vital, as was a $10,000 investment from his friends—a local couple who believe in the food and the folks cooking it. Tnes says Kaba would have opened regardless, though there were plenty of stumbling blocks. The original plan for a food truck didn’t work out because: 1. It would have taken six months to get it licensed and certified. 2. Fans who’d sampled the goods at food festivals this spring were messaging frequently about where to get more. 3. Fukuburger co-founder Robert “Mags” Magsalin advised the Kaba team to go for brick-and-mortar. They tried for a prime unit in the Spring Mountain plaza anchored by Japanese favorites Raku and Monta, but the rent and the cost of building a kitchen from scratch just weren’t feasible (ironically, that unit is now home to another Japanese curry place, Curry Zen, which opened in October). A Kickstarter campaign to raise capital failed. A Craigslist ad finally led them to their Charleston location, a small kitchen next to other small kitchens making hot wings, tacos and kebabs. Much like Kaba’s simple plating inside plastic and Styrofoam boxes, the building doesn’t do its contents justice. But rent is cheap, and this is just the beginning.
“We’re working on trying to get this place more crackin’,” Tnes says, mentioning franchise potential, plans for a catering truck and the power of social media in the hands of his network. “All those people are on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Once they post something it’s golden.”
They’re posting close-ups of tender beer-marinated beef, crispy spam and chicken katsu, golden-breaded pork tonkatsu, potato korokke (think creamy whipped potatoes in a wicked croquette crust), fried tofu and lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and deliciously fatty Japanese sausage. About a dozen such sides ($1-$2) can top one of several Kaba bases, like traditional rice and sauce ($4.99), crinkle fries or curry-fried rice ($5.99) with egg, onion and sausage (udon is in the works). Toppings (50 cents apiece) include corn, rakkyo (scallion), spinach, cheddar, mushrooms and fukujinzuke (pickled dikon radish). And for dessert, cheesecake ($2.50) that Tnes’ mom taught him to make, with Nilla Wafer crust, caramel-tinged filling and a decorative layer of Jell-O. The drink selection has imports such as Sangaria melon soda and sweet Ramune, which opens with a delightful explosion. The best thing about the menu is that it’s a work in progress, with creations like cheddar-curry pizza and panko-coated sesame-infused onion rings popping up as they happen.
“We have a real bad habit of just doing stuff,” Anthony says, laughing about oil and flames flying during Tnes’ great Kaba Moco experiment.
“You know how many places you go to and you’re like, ‘I wish they had this’? We can do it ’cause we have a kitchen space. It’s so dope,” Tnes says, almost giddy with the possibilities, and not just on the plate. He believes in Kaba as a brand, that it’s good enough to go up against the best (maybe even in Japan). That faith comes from the flavor, of course, but it also comes from the dedication of the team. They’re all working insane hours so they’ll know they gave it everything. “Always there is something we can work on. This is our business,” Maki says. “If we do something that is not 100 percent it’s going to be the customer who gets 80 percent. That’s what I believe.”
I’ve been to Kaba twice. Once before the crew had any idea who I was and once after. Both times I got 100 percent (and the sweet, sweet smell of leftover curry in my car). Respect the hippo.