A few weeks ago, I searched #okonomiyaki on Instagram. For those unfamiliar, okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake with scallions, shredded cabbage, and protein, topped with a drizzling of a creamy, slightly-sweet combination of okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese kewpie mayo. Other ingredients and toppings can be added, but if you’re like me, bonito flakes are a necessity. My mouth is watering, and I haven’t even inserted my photos into this post yet.
Back to the story – I had never eaten okonomiyaki before, but I knew I’d like it. After all, I like eggs, shredded veggies, brown Japanese sauces, kewpie mayo, and bonito flakes. I had never heard of an okonomiyaki restaurant in Chicago, but I decided that a quick Google search wasn’t going to hurt. And so I searched, “okonomiyaki chicago,” expecting nothing. Instead, I saw:
Exciting results, right?? I told Nikko, and he immediately made reservations.
West Loop can be a hectic part of town, and we were reminded of it about 5 minutes before our reservation. So while Nikko drove in circles to scavenge for parking spots, I went into the restaurant to get our seats. I was terrified of missing our reservation, so I hurried into the restaurant, checked in with the hostess, and sighed a monumental sigh of relief as she guided me to our seats.
As I walked through the restaurant, I took note of the black walls and furniture, dimmed lighting, and pops of color from the red seat cushions and logo. About 2/3 of the restaurant was table seating, and the rest was bar-style seating, with plenty of seats directly in front of the chefs busily cooking. That’s where we were seated.
Just as I was about to hang my puffy winter jacket on the back of my seat, a server pointed out that the seat cushions are hinged on one side and you can flip them open to reveal some storage space for your jackets and purses. What a thoughtful design! As I was stuffing my jacket into my storage compartment, Nikko rushed in, looked at the chefs cooking in front of us, and whispered excitedly to me, “That’s Paul Virant!”
Yup, Chef Paul Virant was cooking right in front of us. And when we took notice, he chatted with us for a bit. Nikko talked with him about his recent trip to Japan, during which he tried okonomiyaki for the first time, and the chef promised us an amazing meal.
We decided to order an Osaka-style and a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the difference being that the former mixes the ingredients together prior to cooking and the latter layers the ingredients and includes yakisoba. It turned out that Chef Virant was the one cooking our Osaka-style okonomiyaki! Although the idea of okonomiyaki is simple – mixing batter, veggies, and protein and cooking the mixture like a pancake – we couldn’t help but watch Chef Virant in awe. He moved smoothly and expertly, and before we knew it, both dishes were in front of us.
Both dishes were served on cast iron, along with a spatula for cutting and serving. I only bring up these details because cutting through all the noodles in the Hiroshima-style dish was SO satisfying. You can feel each individual noodle snapping as the spatula cuts through it! If you like the snapping sensation when you bite into a sausage or the popping sensation of tobiko, then you need to cut a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
Finally, we started eating. The Osaka-style okonomiyaki had the slight crispiness and savory flavor of the Maillard reaction on the eggs. This crispiness contrasted the soft, fluffy interior, which was enhanced by the presence of the most tender octopus I’ve ever had. I loved how thoroughly the okonomiyaki was covered in the sweet creamy sauces and salty bonito flakes – In every bite, you were sure to get some of those sweet-salty flavors.
The Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki also had the addicting Maillard flavor and crispiness, but instead of contrasting softness, it contrasted the bouncy texture of the yakisoba noodles. To my surprise, the noodles were pretty sweet. This sweetness was not uncalled for, though, because the salty bacon complemented the sweetness nicely. This okonomiyaki was also covered in the sweet sauces and salty bonito flakes, which further intensified the sweet-salty flavor of the dish.
As we ate, Chef Virant asked us for our opinions of the dishes. Nikko elatedly expressed that the Osaka-style okonomiyaki brought him back to his time in Japan and that he was mindblown at the authenticity of the entire experience. I mentioned that I liked both dishes, but the intense sweet-salty nature of the Hiroshima-style dish stole my heart. To this, both Nikko and Chef Virant stated that they prefer the Osaka-style dish – but for opposing reasons! Nikko prefers it because he found it to be the lighter dish, and Chef Virant prefers it because he found it to be heavier. As for me, I found the Hiroshima-style dish heavier, but its heaviness didn’t impact my decision on which dish I prefer. I’m just a sucker for sweet-salty dishes. And noodles.
The decor, people, and food at Gaijin were incredibly warm and inviting, and I can’t wait to make a second reservation. For those of you who’d like to visit, here are my pointers:
- The restaurant is in West Loop Chicago, so parking is hard to find. Plan accordingly.
- Make sure to take advantage of the storage compartment below your seat!
- In my opinion, 1 dish per person is an appropriate amount of food to order.
- If you’re seated in front of the chefs, talk with them!
- Try both styles of okonomiyaki. And if you remember, leave a comment telling me which one you prefer! Which one is heavier? I wanna hear your thoughts!