Ever since I tried okonomiyaki in San Francisco's Japantown two years ago, I've been looking for something in New York that tasted as good. If you've never had okonomiyaki, it's often described as a Japanese pizza—a thick pancake filled with lots of precious goodies like cabbage, scallions, and seafood, then topped with a riot of condiments: sweet brown okonomi sauce, aonori (green seaweed), Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, and dried bonito flakes. Of course, there are lots of variations on ingredients and even regional styles (Osaka-style has the cabbage cooked inside, while Hiroshima-style often is topped with the cabbage and yakisoba noodles).
I ended up at Otafuku in the East Village, where not only could I indulge in Osaka-style okonomiyaki, I could also get a combo that included takoyaki, another delicious and gooey Japanese treat. Takoyaki are fried octopus balls made in a special cast iron grill pan filled with hemispherical molds that reminded me of the hot cake pans in Chinatown, but much bigger. A little oil is heated in the hot molds, then the batter—a generous nugget of octopus, a bit of cabbage, scallion, and pickled ginger—are added. The oil fries the outside, while the inside remains mostly gooey.
I watched as the expert takoyaki makers at Otafuku prodded and turned the balls with a skewer, making sure its curved sides were crisp and golden brown. Like the okonomiyaki, these molten balls of delicious are topped with okonomi sauce, bonito, kewpie, and aonori.
Otafuku is a tiny place that can barely hold four customers before the line goes out the door, which I'm sure it often does. Along with the takoyaki and okonomiyaki, Otafuku also serves up yakisoba, fried noodles with bits of seafood. That day, I decided to go with the takoyaki and okonomiyaki combo with squid, which came with six takoyaki balls and one okonomi. For the okonomiyaki, there are many topping choices (pork, beef, shrimp, corn and scallion, and the squid) and after seeing how thin and bacon-like the pork was, that will most definitely be my next venture.
Even with three people behind the counter at Otafuku, it looked crowded. There was one woman at the takoyaki pan and one man cooking all of the okonomiyaki and yakisoba orders on one griddle that could not have been bigger than your average four-burner stovetop.
When I got my order, I topped it with the Sriracha and took a seat at Otafuku's only seating: a well-worn wooden bench in front of the store, where right through the window behind you, more food was being cooked up. Since the heat wave finally broke, it was the perfect spot to sit, bask, and gorge—especially since I couldn't wait until Brooklyn and who knows how many people on the subway would have asked for a bite?
I bit into my takoyaki, still hot from the pan, and reveled in the fried, battered goodness as the ball instantly deflated into its soft innards, the octopus at its core. Other okonomiyaki I've had in New York were never up to par to my Japantown experience—too often the ones I had in New York were drenched in the okonomi sauce, producing a sickly sweet brown mess. This time, with its dried bonito flakes waving gracefully with the breeze, the okonomi tasted amazing: a little crisp on the outside, chock full of squid, and topped with just the right amount of condiments.
I somehow managed to save some to bring back to my sister in Williamsburg to try. Earlier this year, she traveled and ate all over Japan and I was anxious to see if Otafuku lived up to the real thing. After I tripped and lost a chopstick or two she had brought back from Japan off her rooftop, she tried the okonomiyaki and success was declared, "Tastes like it did in Japan, if not better since there's so much more squid in it here."
So at Otafuku, for just $8 (and even less for the other combos), you can get a hefty, super-filling portion of Japanese street food, sit down to the chatter of Japanese from the line that comes out the door, and for a few bites, imagine you've made it around the world.
236 E. 9th Street, New York NY 10003 (nr. 2nd Avenue; map)