The octopus hot dog may perfectly encapsulate the vibe at Kokeshi, the new Asian-style street food spot in Salem. An incredible amount of behind-the-scenes technique goes into what looks like a simple—and kind of crazy—dish. To mimic an American hot dog, tentacles are slow-cooked overnight, and then quickly seared, giving the octopus a texture surprisingly similar to the barbecue standby, with a bit of a snap on the exterior and a tender, moist inside. Presented in a hot dog bun, with a limey daikon slaw and mayo spiked with a hot sauce from local spice maker K’s Kitchen standing in place of ketchup and sauerkraut, it is slightly familiar, completely playful, and delicious.
That’s the theme throughout the menu, as is also the case at sister restaurant Bambolina—take classic techniques and ingredients, mix them with local influences, and then come up with something completely unique. The inspiration came from owners Tim Haigh and Larry Leibowitz’s separate travels in Southeast Asia, and a love of those bright, fresh flavors—as well as the allure of making thoughtful food at gentle prices.
While an octopus hot dog may not be to everyone’s taste (but trust us and give it a try—it will surprise you), diners who bring a sense of adventure and an open mind will be pleased. Start with the flash-fried chicken wings, the deliciousness of which is no surprise, considering how much thought and effort went into this dish. To create luscious meat that nearly falls off the bone, the wings are slow-braised for four hours in a mixture of broth and chicken fat, and then dusted with a secret Asian-style combination of corn starch, rice flour, and other ingredients—making them gluten-free—and deep fried. Served with a bright Nuoc Cham, which translates to “dipping sauce”—in this case a blend of Asian fish sauce and lime juice—it is an umami-packed treat worth every calorie.
Pork Steamed Buns & Octupus Hot Dog
Umami—the fifth taste, usually described as savory—is present throughout the menu, but especially in the soup section. Haigh and Leibowitz are careful not to refer to their offerings by traditional Japanese names, because, while they share properties with their storied Japanese counterparts, Kokeshi isn’t presenting classical preparations. The soup broth isn’t rich, thick tonkatsu style or light miso style, but rather a combination of the two they call Kokeshi broth. The mixture is a happy result of the owners having different preferences—Haigh is drawn to the miso style, while Leibowitz prefers the unctuous tonkatsu style. The lucky compromise, blending the characteristics of both, starts with pork feet and bones slow-simmered for 18 hours, and then mixed with a light dashi broth. It is an addictive soup, totally unique and available with a variety of toppings and noodles, including Tokyo wavy and gluten-free rice. Try the Bacon ’n’ Eggs Ramen, topped with a soft-cooked egg, bacon, and pork belly. Or the tongue-tingling Vietnamese Noodles, in which a broth, brightened with lime juice and heated with sambal—an Indonesian spice paste—is layered with smoky, spicy, wok-fried ground pork.
Ahi Tuna Poke & Num Pang
The “other stuff” heading on the menu is a hopscotch of Southeast Asian plates, from a Thai green curry to the Num Pang ‘Cambodian street sandwich. The latter is Kokeshi’s answer to the ubiquitous banh mi: perfectly poached prawns or a soy sauce-bathed Shoyu egg dressed with chili mayonnaise sitting atop a handful of fresh veggies and a soft roll. Split in half, it’s nice to share with a bowl of that spicy soup.
For a lighter dish, try the Ahi Tuna Poke (pronounced po-kay), a raw seafood salad originating in Hawaii that is having a moment across the country. Although it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, it’s a still-gentle $18, considering the generous heap of fresh, raw bigeye tuna, tossed with subtle chunks of avocado and a ponzu dressing, atop a bed of flavorful rice.
Owners Larry Leibowitz & Tim Haigh
Don’t overlook the craft cocktail program, which offers a number of local favorites in new combinations. The Year of the Rooster, which blends Privateer rum, lime, lemongrass, and cucumber, is especially nice with those wings.
Desserts are intentionally light: coconut rice pudding, a few scoops of mango sorbet, or the black sesame ice cream—sweet, bitter, and nutty. Kinda like the final touch at Kokeshi—the custom fortune cookies. A recent one read “Packaged ramen is no longer in your future. #kokeshifortune.” Indeed.
ON THE MENU
Octopus Hot Dog $10
Flash-Fried Chicken Wings $10
Bacon ‘N’ Eggs Ramen $14
Vietnamese Noodles $13
Num Pang ‘Cambodian Street Sandwich’ Prawn $12 or Shoyu Egg $10
Ahi Tuna Poke $18
Year of the Rooster
(Privateer Rum, Lime, Lemongrass, Cucumber)
41 Lafayette St.