The other day, I stumbled onto a wonderful okonomiyaki spot so I thought I would share. Okonomiyaki is easiest explained as “Japanese pancake” but it’s not really a pancake. Okonomiyaki is a savory flavor bomb.
On the opposite side of Tokyo from where I normally work and play, there is an indoor onsen (hot springs) known and loved by locals. There are a total of nine hot springs and eight saunas. It’s really great but unfortunately they don’t allow people with tattoos to enter. Tattoos are associated with yakuza (Japanese mob) and Japanese equate tattoos with bad people and bad things. This old school mentality still applies in 2015, even in Tokyo. It’s so stupid but what can you do.
Anyway, I trekked to this unfamiliar area to take a friend in need of massive R&R to the spa. He is tatt’d up so we got rejected which ruined my plan of killing a few hours between lunch and dinner at the spa, then heading to Kagurazaka (a short cab ride away) from the spa for dinner.
Sidenote: Kagurazaka is still a little known area to tourists. It’s a tiny neighborhood with an old Japan feel and a slight European twist. Lots of cafes and little restaurants line the cobble stone streets. Tucked in this area are top quality restaurants (mainly Italian and French). There are several Michelin rated restaurants but Kagurazaka is notorious for restaurant owners rejecting stars because they don’t want attention, tourists, etc. Sounds silly but Japan is filled with amazing restaurants that prefer to remain low key.
I took him out to that area anyway, even if I knew a lot of the places would be closed. We killed time getting shiatsu massages (shiatsu is pressure point massage) — massages in Japan are ridiculously reasonable, $50-70 dollars for an hour — then googled for anything open. Found a pretty popular yakitori place that opened at 4pm, so we popped in, ordered a few things, food was a bummer so we moved on…
My friend wanted to eat takoyaki (octopus pancake balls — like baby okonomiyaki) so I googled and found a place nearby. By this time, it’s around 6pm. As we approached, there was already a line outside (good sign). The clientele was all Japanese, most looked like locals. Another good sign.
We get seated on the stumpy bar stools right smack in front of the colossal grill. Technically the grill is a Japanese grill called teppan — like the ones at Benihana, that stupid chain. I was immediately in awe. The okonomiyaki is very different from what I’m used to.
Okonomiyaki originates from Osaka, a southern region 4 hours away from Tokyo by high speed bullet train. Traditional okonomiyaki is thin cabbage shreds mixed into a pancake like batter and grilled with squid (ika) or slices of pork belly (bacon!), topped with Kewpie mayo and okonomiyaki sauce. Okonomiyaki sauce is thick in consistency and tastes like Worchestershire mixed with ketchup. This sauce goes so well with okonomiyaki and Kewpie mayonnaise I can’t get enough of the combination.
The okonomiyaki style at this place is different from the Osaka style I am so used to. A bit of batter is put on the teppan to make a thin layer like a crepe. The finely chopped cabbage isn’t mixed into the batter but placed on top of the crepe. The chef (grill master?) then adds the pork and squid, a small scoop of batter, adds ramen like noodles or thick udon noodles, and tops the pile off with more batter. Right before it’s served, katsuobushi (dried skip jack tuna shavings) and finely ground nori (seaweed) are sprinkled on top.
The okonomiyaki can be ordered with or without noodles. We ordered the one with everything — pork, squid, some misc. sea life I forgot (clams I think?) and thin noodles. We watched the chef prepare then he served it to us right on the grill. We took a bite and holy smokes, I had never tasted an okonomiyaki that delicious. The flavor bomb factor was still there — umami explosion — but it had a new texture and taste I was not expecting. Think thin crust pizza vs Chicago pizza, same ingredients and elements, two very different tastes.
We also ordered shiso (fragrant herb I lovingly call the cilantro of Japan; doesn’t taste remotely alike but more so because you either love or hate shiso, just like cilantro) wrapped in pork, grilled eggplant with a touch of soy sauce, katsuobushi and grated ginger and shiitake mushrooms. The shiso pork was out of this world, the mushrooms only average. But the grilled eggplant – oh wow. The moment we put it in our mouths, he and I looked at each other, smiled and nodded. The seasoning was light but the flavors swirled in my mouth with the juices from the eggplant. There was ginger and soy sauce, a hint of dashi and… oh god, I am drooling writing this.
The food was excellent but I doubt I will return. Only because it is so out of my way the chances of me coming back to Iidabashi (where this okonomiyaki place is) just to eat okonomiyaki are slim to none.
People don’t realize how big Tokyo is. It is made of 23 wards with a population of 13.35 million people. For scale, the entire population of New York City (and the Five Boroughs) is 8.4 million and Los Angeles a mere 3.88 million. Each station is jam packed with stacks on stacks of restaurants, bars, food stalls and supermarkets. It would take my lifetime just to eat through my neighborhood.
People asking for recommendations is the hardest thing for me, as there is just so much to recommend, incredible places everywhere. I usually give a list of the most convenient or non-Japanese friendly places (the language barrier is a struggle).
If you happen to be in the area, do please check it out. This place has a permanent spot in my memory as one of the best okonomiyakis I’ve ever eaten.
Hours Monday and Tuesday 4:30pm – 11:00 pm
Wednesday – Friday 11:30am – 2pm / 4:30pm – 11:00pm
Saturday, Sunday and Holidays 12pm – 11:00pm
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*The menu is only in Japanese so it might be a bit tough without a local.
My friend also has an action shot on his Instagram if you’re interested here.