It was supposed to be a pleasant lunch with a girlfriend at Takoyaki Gen, one of my favorite Little Tokyo eateries. It ended up being more of a wake.
I knew something was wrong even before I walked through the door. A new yellow sign, hung low in the window, caught my eye. "Public notice of application for ownership change," it read. Takoyaki Gen has since closed, and the new owner is taking the place in a different direction.
Ordinarily, restaurant closings don't depress me. Usually there's a close enough facsimile a few blocks away: another pasta/pizza/taco/falafel/fill-in-the-flavor purveyor. But this was different. As far as I know, Takoyaki Gen was one of only two places in Los Angeles to get okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake that is mostly cabbage bound together with egg and a bit of flour. It was my back-pocket restaurant. When jaded foodie friends told me they had tried everything, I trotted out my secret weapon.
The charms of Takoyaki Gen were many. Foremost was the okonomiyaki, available in well over a dozen variations, from pedestrian pork to what the menu touted as "Amazing! Squid ink," which colored the entire pancake black. The young cooks prepared the okonomiyaki for all to see on a massive grill, flush against the counter. Customers could follow the progress of their order, from thick batter to golden brown pancake, while nursing cold beer, the popular choice being Yebisu. They also could flirt with Rumi Sato, the owner, who managed to land atop the crush lists of several male acquaintances.
Now that Sato has retired her chef's jacket for an office job at a friend's company, about the only place to get okonomiyaki locally is Tombo in Torrance. Tombo is good. It isn't pretty, but neither was Takoyaki Gen. Tombo also has this going for it: Diners can cook their own okonomiyaki if they score one of the half-dozen four-tops with a built-in grill. Waitresses bring the raw ingredients in small metal bowls crowned by shimmying egg yolks. Patrons mix, pour and oversee the grilling themselves. Flipping the babies halfway through is the trickiest part, best done quickly and fearlessly.
When the grilling is complete, it's condiment playtime. There's okonomiyaki sauce, a thick, dark, subtly sweet Worcestershire-like blend. Paint it on generously. Mayonnaise is next. I once overheard a Tombo customer proclaim to her table mates, "It's all about the mayonnaise." While this strikes me as a bit over enthusiastic, I'll concede that mayonnaise, like any good fat, does tend to improve things. And when it comes in a squeeze bottle, as it does here, it also allows for painterly expression. The final garnish options are dry seaweed and bonito flakes. Oh, and hot mustard, which is frighteningly hot.
On those days when I don't feel up to the pilgrimage to Torrance, I make okonomiyaki myself. It's easy enough, like advanced Bisquick, once the shopping and chopping are done. I still haven't mastered the treacherous flip. Often I end up with something akin to okonomiyaki hash. Fortunately, the flavor is unaffected. No okonomiyaki dinner parties, however, just yet.
Rumi Sato's Basic Okonomiyaki
Lard or vegetable oil for grilling
(Sato prefers lard)
1/2 cup flour (either the standard American
or finer Japanese will work)
1/2 cup dashi broth or water
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3 cups finely chopped cabbage
1 tablespoon tenkasu (deep-fried tempura
1 teaspoon finely chopped green onion
1/2 teaspoon red pickled ginger
10 or so small scallops, uncooked
Okonomi sauce, to taste
Mayonnaise, to taste
Combine flour, broth (or water) and soy sauce in medium-size bowl. Mixture should be as soft as an earlobe, says Sato. Add remaining ingredients. Mix thoroughly. Pour mixture into center of heated greased skillet. Using spatula or spoon, shape into cake about 8 inches wide. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes over low flame. Using two spatulas, flip okonomiyaki. Cook for 8 to 10 more minutes, or until cooked through. Surface should be golden. (An electric hot plate can also be used.) Paint top with okonomiyaki sauce. Add mayonnaise to taste. Cut in pizza style slices. Raw shrimp or squid, cut in small pieces, or a seafood mixture can be substituted for the scallops.