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Maneki Pop-Up Set to Become Permanent Late-Night Spot in Uptown

Kenny Do knows just what to do

traditional negima yakitori dish
Negima yakitori (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

Kushiyaki (noun) ku·​shi·​ya·​ki: grilled and skewered meat or vegetables in Japanese cuisine; typically seasoned with soy sauce, salt, or other flavorings and cooked over an open flame or grill.

“Sometimes you gotta pop up and sh(o)nigiris,” I jokingly said to the boo (sorry, not sorry, Kendrick Lamar’s “They Not Like Us” is on repeat), reminiscing on our third rendezvous at Maneki, a Japanese-inspired kushiyaki pop-up on its omakase flex.

And guess what Queen City? This pop-up is getting ready to transition into a permanent late-night hotspot called Robatayaki in Uptown’s Latta Arcade.

“Oh my God,” I said as I bit into the third course of the night, an elote corn twist on onigiri, a traditional Japanese food consisting of a triangle of cooked rice, often wrapped in nori (seaweed) and typically filled.

And in Kendrick fashion, this onigiri “wasn’t like any other” onigiri anyone’s ever tasted in all the best ways.

Picture an inside-out sushi roll sammie filled with sweet corn niblets and drizzled with burnt scallion kewpie, citrusy togarashi, and salty cotija.

a photo of a loaded onigiri from a local pop-up in Charlotte
Onigiri from Maneki (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

Make it make sense! How can someone so effortlessly fuse Mexican street corn and traditional Japanese flavors in a single bite?! Executive Chef Kenny Do didn’t just do it again, he did it thrice!

Despite my drinking habits and short-term memory, I distinctly remember the first night I met Kenny. The boo and I had the munchies and were throwing up Hail Marys that Carlos Dogs would be serving up late-night eats outside Snug Harbor.

“That’s Kenny, he’s from Bardo,” boo whispered as I was eye-grilling the only person getting in the way of my sustenance, unaware that’s who he was referring to. However, my impatience quickly turned to compassion as Kenny’s freshly prepped food slipped from his hands to the ground. He stared in dismay for a second, then turned with a smile, shrugging it off as if to say, “It’s all good.”

A hungry lady in waiting, I’m sure my reaction to his calm, cool and collected demeanor read both horror and delight. All that to say, with Kenny at the helm, you can trust he won’t fumble the bag with Maneki.

But I digress.

“You licked your fingers?!” I whisper-screamed at my non-phalange-licking boyfriend in a total state of judgment as I begrudgingly wiped away the remnants of the onigiri kewpie from my fingertips.

Me: What’s the personal significance of the name Maneki? (Followed by boo’s edit: “Why lucky cat?”)

Kenny: Maneki cats are utilized in different Asian cultures and depending on the color of the cat and which paw it’s waving can represent many things. Left paw waving beckons in more guests while the right paw raised/waving means bringing in more income to the establishment.

As I rolled my eyes in jealousy at my boo’s break from decorum, my gaze met that of the one muscle-bound lucky cat waving his caricature of a huge left arm in my direction. It was at that moment I realized I was already getting full and this MF was taunting me.

But the jacked lucky cat wasn’t going to break my spirit. “Left side, strong side,” I thought to myself, taking a page from the Remember the Titans playbook as I dipped my baby spoon into the silky surface of the fourth course, a velvety trumpet mushroom chawanmushi.

a photo of meat and veggie skewers plated from Maneki
Grilled skewers (Photo by Aerin Spurill)

Unlike some Queen City chefs, before hopping in pockets and putting food to plate at the permanent location, Kenny embarked on a month-long externship to Japan where he became intimately engaged with the art of kushiyaki, Japanese culture, and cuisine. Read: There’s no way I’m not eating the next eight courses.

Of course, with kushiyaki, the charcoal-grilled meat and veggie skewers are the main event. Cubes of chicken thigh grilled to juicy perfection, nestled between chunky scallion and topped with fresh lemon zest. Your go-to skewer spot could never.

“Do you have another Tums?” I asked bae after having just said I couldn’t eat another bite. Little did I know, that wouldn’t be the last lie of the meal.

The final course was a non-dessert eater’s wet dream of nori and sesame-encrusted ice cream sandwiched between crusty, buttery shortbread cookies. Salty and sweet?! Kenny was killing my stomach softly with his food song, and I was an addict.

What to expect? A game-changer for late-night food ops.

Maneki will offer a limited-seating omakase experience (we paid sub $100 for around 10 courses each visit, which is insane!) and skewers-to-go under one roof. When and where? Your new favorite Japanese food stall is taking over the old Fujiyama in Latta Arcade (on brand, I’ll never call it “The Alley”) and it’s slated to open in the coming weeks!

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