A friend of mine once said, “Okonomiyaki is just a Japanese pancake.”
The sizzle of pork on the grill, dancing flakes of bonito and generous drizzles of mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce (a syrupy shoyu-based mixture). “Just a pancake?” Not!
During World War II, when times were tight, Japanese people devised okonomiyaki; somewhere between an omelet and a crepe, filled with whatever they had on hand.
Today, okonomiyaki is a very common a quick, filling meal, known for many variations. In fact, there is technically no correct recipe because the word “okonomiyaki” means “cooked your own way.”
I have a teacher back in Japan whose okonomiyaki always sold out within minutes in garage sales because people would buy it in batches to give to friends and family. She said, in essence, “it is by taste and sense, really.”
Sho-chan Hiroshimayaki: Reasonable and Real
“I wanted to show America the Hiroshima-yaki style,” says Shinji Yamamoto, owner and executive chef of Sho-chan. Five years ago, he and his partner-wife, Hiroko, moved to Hawaii and founded Sho-chan. At first, they were on University Avenue but last month moved to Kapahulu Avenue. Their food was good then. It’s even better now.
The Hiroshima-style pork okonomiyaki ($7.80) comes with “specially made” soba noodles. In Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the ingredients are not mixed together, as with the customary Kansai-style. Instead, the pancake is layered thickly with batter, noodles, cabbage, soba noodles, pork and egg, allowing the flavors and textures to stand out. The batter keeps the ingredients together, but melts in your mouth because everything is hot off the griddle. Slathered with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes and seaweed powder, the dish is a kanak-attack worth well more than its reasonable price. “The secret lies in steaming the vegetables to get their sweetness out,” says Yamamoto. As authentic as you can get in Hawaii.
Jinroku: Cabbage Experience, authenticity
Jinroku is the legacy of a 20-year-old restaurant in Tokyo, opening in Waikiki three years ago. Although they serve teppanyaki-style foods, they are most famous for their okonomiyaki. Manager Tom Shinohara credits their success to “a whole lot of experience in Japan.”
The pork okonomiyaki ($11.50, lunch; $13, dinner) was a smaller portion compared to the other three restaurants, but stood out because of the generous amount of crunchy, thick-sliced cabbage and also the egg, not “fried” but slightly undercooked, which actually worked well with the tender pork. Additional ingredients: $2 each, including shrimp, octopus, mochi, shiso leaf. Good as Sho-chan but prices higher for smaller portions.
Chibo Restaurant: Chain means Ka-ching
The Osaka-based Chibo arrived in Honolulu 22 years ago. Manager Akira Kashimura says, “I remember that time there was only one other okonomiyaki.”
Under executive chef Mamoru Ginoza, the restaurant’s signature dish is Okonomiyaki Chibo. At $21.75, it is an overload of sirloin, shrimp, squid and scallops. The seafood and meat is thoroughly mixed into the batter, which is made with flour, egg, cabbage, mountain yam, red ginger and green onion. Although the shrimp and sirloin were well-cooked and the red ginger and green onion’s sharp, tanginess made the flavors stand out, the batter tasted too much like dough. Choose-your-own combinations are $17.75 with some unusual choices.
Yaki Yaki Miwa Standard or gluten-free
I didn’t realize the immense popularity of this little shop in Moiliili until four unsuccessful drop-in attempts prompted me to make a reservation. The tables here have individual hot metal griddles, which excited me because this is the way it’s done in Japan: You select and mix your own ingredients and grill them. However, no such luck. Chef Jin Kawamoto made us the pork okonomiyaki ($9.80) and beef modanyaki ($11.50). The modanyaki include noodles, as does Hiroshima-yaki. He made the food, then the waitress brought it out onto our griddles to keep it hot.
For a restaurant where teppanyaki is the focus and not okonomiyaki, they do a standard job. Also, good news for gluten-sensitive folks: according to the waitress, There’s gluten-free okonomiyaki: Order Andy’s okonomiyaki, prepared on a special reserved griddle.