In the okonomiyai restaurants in Japan called okonomiyaki-ya, diners also get to cook the flapjacks themselves at their tables. A hot plate, pair of spatulas (one large for turning, one small for patting), and batter are provided for that purpose, along with the add-ins requested. You mix, pour, sizzle, squish, and flip. This is a jolly participatory meal, and it’s harder than you think. The consistency of the batter with all the inclusions means it’s very hard to know when to pat, shape, and flip the thing. If you cut into the finished product and liquid oozes out, you’ve failed miserably at your task.
In the late 80s and early 90s we had a place near Grand Central (where many restaurants aimed at Japanese businesspeople were located) named Chibo that specialized in okonomiyaki. The address was 7 East 44th Street, and the room was high ceilinged and relentlessly dark brown, maybe mimicking the color of the pancake. Each of the dozen or so tables had an electric burner and a flat teppan griddle. Japanese patrons were allowed to cook the pancakes themselves, but Westerners ignominiously had to let the waitresses cook their okonomiyaki for them. These gals mixed in the ingredients, poured the pancakes, and kept complete control of the spatulas at all times, taking them along when they left the table.
In the intervening years, few versions of the pancake were available to New Yorkers, and those invariably had a small set list of ingredients. Places that served them usually catered mainly to Japanese diners. One stalwart was Otafuku in the East Village, a street-food stall. Though its specialty was octopus fritters called takoyaki, okonomiyaki was another focus of its very brief menu. But now the dish is undergoing a remarkable revival, and is gradually being recognized as one of the world’s great comfort foods — salty, greasy, squishy, and satisfying. Chefs like Ivan Orkin, Sawako Okochi, Aaron Israel, and Kenta Goto have diddled with the pancake to make it their own, but as yet we still don’t have a place that lets you cook it yourself. Here is an annotated list of our favorite places to get okonomiyaki.
Otafuku — Founded in 2000 as Little Japan’s favorite street-food purveryor, Otafuku offers two okonmiyaki choices: pork and shrimp. Pork is the one to get, because it involves embedding strips of bacon on the surface of the pancake, which crisps on the flat-top griddle as the flapjack cooks. One serving ($9) includes two pancakes and five strips of bacon. The patties are mainly cabbage, though the result is still delicious. 220 E 9th St, (646) 998-3438
Sunrise Mart — Not the one in the East Village, but the Sunrise Mart version just down the street from the main library (you know, the one with the lions). It has a full kitchen that turns out exciting renditions of Japanese fast-food classics, including a delightful okonomiyaki that highlights a poached egg inside, with the usual Worcestershire, mayo, and bonito-flake (katsuobushi) topping. One large pancake split down the middle, $8.50. 12 E 41st St, (646) 380-9280
Ivan Ramen — Clearly, Ivan Orkin is a guy who understands okonomiyak. Which is why his head-turning version at Ivan Ramen on the LES is so right, while being completely untraditional. Choosing to Americanize it in a regional Pennsylvania sort of way, he turns it into a scrapple waffle called Lancaster okonomiyaki ($14), then goes on to top it conventionally. Whether you like scrapple or not, it’s definitely worth seeking out, especially if you’re eating your way through the city’s okonomiyaki offerings. Check to make sure it’s currently on the menu before you visit. 25 Clinton St, (646) 678-3859
Shalom Japan — This crazy place in an obscure corner of Williamsburg mashes up Jewish and Japanese influences in a way that sometimes works magnificently, sometimes not. The okonomiyaki here is splendid, a relatively small and savory pancake with pastrami tidbits put on top in addition to the usual toppings. My only question is: Why didn’t they put the cured meat on the inside of the pancake? The price? $14. 310 South 4th St, Brooklyn, (718) 783-3264.
HanaMichi — Japanese gastropubs are great places to look for okonomiyaki, and HanaMichi offers the further twist of being in Koreatown. That means the savory pancake is served in a set meal that also includes miso soup and three kinds of pan chan. The okonomiyaki is a riff with squid and shrimp, a larger range of vegetables than usual, and an oddball mantle of mozzarella in addition to the usual toppings. The pancake is also cooked crisper and browner than usual, and the ensemble will set you back $16, easily a full meal. 28 W 32nd St, (212) 736-5393
Kenka — The name means "brawl" or "melee" in Japanese, and this wild basement expat hang — with no English signage outside and cheap prices for draft beer — has a great, inexpensive okonomiyaki ($6.50) with bacon bits and a range of vegetables in a pale very gooey rice-flour matrix. If you like your grilled cake cooked "well done," this is not the place for you. The menu is expansive, and explodes from the red plastic page with more dishes than you can count or keep track of. Simply close it and whisper, "okonomiyaki." Open ‘til 2 a.m. 25 St Marks Pl, (212) 254-6363
Okiway — Recently, several new restaurants have upped the ante, okonomiyaki-wise. This Bushwick izakaya partly owned by French hairdresser Vincent Minchelli centers its menu on the savory flapjack, currently offering six varieties, cooked before your eyes on a broad teppan griddle. Two versions mention Hiroshima, a center of pancake pride. At the restaurant, the okonomiyakis associated with the city incorporate ramen or soba, an entire fried egg, and pork belly; one is spicy, one not ($15.50 and $14, respectively). Further afield, a rendition called Mexican Osaka shows the true wackiness of okonomiyaki, arriving heaped with crumbly white cheese, avocado, and a mild chorizo that might be mistaken for a hot dog. The takoyaki are also made with extraordinary care, but whether you like the wasabi guacamole or not is a matter of personal preference. 1006 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 417-1091
Bar Goto — Former Pegu Club mixologist Ken Goto has also recently started his own okonomiyaki-centered place on the LES, along with a list of compatible cocktails in a Japanese vein featuring yuzu preserves, Calpico soda, shiso, and yuzu bitters. Five pancakes are available, the most spectacular of which involves three types of Western cheese — parmesan, cheddar, and gruyere — plus mushrooms and sundried tomatoes ($12). It’s just about the best, and soggiest, toasted cheese sandwich you’ve ever tried. The pancake is served unconventionally in a rectangular skillet with the bonito flakes and shredded red ginger on the side. Other okonomiyakis include a seafood version featuring rock shrimp, octopus, and squid; and another that deploys soba noodles, pork belly and seafood. One "don’t miss" snack on the brief menu is fried chicken wings marinated in smeary miso, which imparts an amazing texture. 245 Eldridge St, (212) 475-4411
Ganso Yaki – Spun off by noodle fave Ganso Ramen not long ago, this izakaya tenders a very broad range of traditional and invented Japanese short dishes. The okonomiyaki ($10; pictured at top) is served in a deep, round cast-iron skillet, and is thereby rendered a bit loftier. This allows for all sorts of gummy goodness inside. Dried green tea is added to the bonito flakes on top. The fillings, though, were the very conventional diced pork belly and cabbage. Overall, despite lack of diversity in fillings, this was one of the best okonomiyakis we tasted. 515 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, (646) 927-0303