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Karaoke Korrespondent Jeff Roman visited Kona Kitchen in Maple Leaf this past Friday. This is his report:
Maple Leaf's Kona Kitchen is run by the actor Yuji Okumoto and his family. He's been in show business for 25 years and is best known for his role as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part II. For me, his finest performance was in the 1985 comedy Better Off Dead, where he played John Cusack's street racing nemesis who learned how to speak English by watching ABC's "Wild World of Sports." Like many others who grew up in the 80's, I've seen that movie well over a hundred times, and seize every opportunity to drop one of his Cosell-inspired lines. To karaoke in his place was a huge honor for me.
Every Friday and Saturday night Yuji's Lounge provides karaoke around 10:30. I rolled in around that time and found the restaurant area winding down, with a few patrons bellied up at the bar. The stage faces out toward the lounge, and I found it a bit distracting at first that there was no separation between the restaurant and lounge areas. It would feel much more intimate in there if they just curtained the lounge off. The stage is set up nicely, though. When killing in front of packed bar, you really get to feeling like a superstar up there. Don't be discouraged by the thin catalog; they have a big computerized selection, so just tell Sean, the host, what you want to sing and he'll look it up for you.
Things didn't get busy until close to midnight. It started out as a five-singer rotation for the first hour, a perfect way to kick off the night for earlybirds (only a 15-minute wait between songs). I stunk it up pretty bad. The time to take chances is when there's no one around but I always wind up getting my ass kicked by Don Henley. I tried to sing "The Long Run" and was totally screwed by the second line. KJ Sean, however, is an awesome singer. It's great to see a host that's having good time. His rendition of Queen's "Killer Queen" was so powerful it inspired me to focus and not embarrass myself the rest of the night.
As things got busy, something happened I wish would happen every time. People filled the place, but there were only a few new singers. There was still the tight rotation, but now with a full audience. For such a tucked-in neighborhood, I would have figured there would just be aged regulars, but the crowd was young.
There was this guy pushing 40, however, who was a total ringer. He sang nothing but AM Gold, and had a voice as soft and sweet as David Gates from Bread. Then this cute young blonde got up to sing T-Pain and totally brought the house down. Things got super lively by the end of the night--this is definitely a place I want to hit again.
Being Filipino, the island theme made me feel right at home. The atmosphere felt like a family party. The bar stays open until 2, and they keep the kitchen open until midnight. I've eaten at Kona a couple times and highly recommend the Hawaiian & Japanese dishes. They don't have drink specials, but they're poured strong and for a reasonable price. Do watch yourself if you've have had a few sips, though, because 5th Ave NE is a commonly-used road for North Precinct cops heading back to the station. Mahalo!