Some residents remember when it was a downtown Dunkin' Donuts. Others recall a hot dog and wing joint. But a noodle bar in the 500 block of Southard Street is quickly curing the tiny storefront's identity crisis.
Kojin noodle bar -- pronounced "Cajun," but with an "o" instead of an "a" -- has been creating a pleasant buzz around town since opening in January, and the sake is only partly to blame.
Chef owners Keith St. Peter and Andrew Berman are clearly having a good time with their new venture. Their delight spills onto the sidewalk, where diners regularly await a seat inside or a hot take-out order from the pagoda-shaped, walk-up window.
Noodle bars have been popular in bigger cities for a number of years, but Kojin is Key West's first taste of the concept that features mostly bar seating. Kojin has seven bar stools, two high-top tables and a table for eight upstairs for larger parties, or communal dining among smaller groups.
"I knew it had to be a shotgun-shaped space, with a big bar, because in Japan they're all like this," said St. Peter, who also owns The Café "mostly vegetarian" restaurant across the street and co-owns The Porch beer and wine bar on Duval Street.
He had been considering opening a noodle bar and was waiting for the right location to present itself when Berman returned to Key West after a three-year stint in Boulder, Colo.
"Keith invited me to do a guest appearance at The Café and we started talking about opening a place together," said Berman, who for 17 years was the chef at Café des Artistes, which is now Pisces. "We looked at each other, and both said 'noodle bar.' "
The menu was the least of their worries, St. Peter said. Both chefs were familiar with the concept and the food.
"We penned a menu in about 20 minutes," he said. "We each tossed out a few ideas, we made some dishes, tasted them and that was it."
The menu features six main noodle dishes, which are numbered, pictured and described on a large menu above the bar. No. 4, Vietnamese pho, is one of the most popular items, St. Peter said, perhaps because many people are familiar with the dish, if not the pronunciation -- it's fuh, not foe and certainly not poe. The dish features beef tenderloin or tofu over rice noodles, flavored with basil, cilantro, chilies and sprouts.
Other dishes include the Dragon Bowl of chicken, rice noodles, chili ginger, lime and cabbage; the house ramen with pork, a soft egg, nori and scallions; and curried lamb over ramen with scallions and mint.
The steamed buns -- soft, warm, folded and stuffed like a taco with pork belly and pickled cucumber seasoned with hoisin and chili sauces -- are popular as an appetizer, side dish or late-night bar snack, along with salt and pepper prawns, chicken dumplings or a small bowl of ramen with ginger scallion sauce and pickled vegetables.
"I'd say the menu is 80 percent Japanese, 10 percent Vietnamese and the last 10 percent is pan-Asian, but the design is based on a traditional Japanese noodle bar," St. Peter said.
The name Kojin comes from the word for a Japanese deity representing fire -- contained fire, used for creation rather than destruction, he explained, adding that the taste profile of Asian food is different from American food and unfamiliar to some people's palates.
Newcomers to Asian cuisine always and immediately find something they like, Berman said.
"It's not intimidating," he said. "Our menu is not structured like a typical restaurant menu. We have six main noodle bowls -- and more. The 'more' can be on the side, as appetizers or just snacks."
Kojin makes all of its own stocks, and is respectful of vegetarians who prefer tofu to pork or beef, and who deserve to have their dish made with vegetarian and vegan stock, said St. Peter, who has been serving vegetarian and vegan dishes for nine years at The Cafe.
Half-sized -- and half-priced -- portions of each noodle bowl also are available.
It's not all about the food, the owners say. Kojin is on its way to having the largest sake list south of Miami, Berman said.
"This isn't your average, factory-stuff sake that all the other places have."
He said the typical description of sake as "rice wine" is a misnomer, and that sake production more closely resembles that of beer, rather than wine, because it's brewed, not fermented.
The restaurant is capitalizing on people's growing interest in sake, and hosts Sake 101 classes once a month, offering tastings and an education about the complex process.
"Sake is like wine was in the '70s and '80s, when people started taking an interest in it, and are becoming more informed," Berman said.
The same holds true for food, St. Peter said. People now are more aware that when they go to a fine dining restaurant, they're also paying for the sommelier and the maitre d', whom they see once throughout the evening, he said.
"We're not reinventing the wheel here, we're just using fresh ingredients that are cooked well. We're know for doing things right," St. Peter said.
He isn't worried about competing with himself by opening Kojin across the street from The Café, he said.
"I've had people waiting for a table here [at Kojin] who've said in a huff that they're going to The Café instead," he said. "Works for me."
And apparently, Kojin works for Key West.