Some Musings on Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima: Daichan, Toshiro, Mitchan
Hanging around Hiroshima for a couple weeks, it becomes apparent how integral okonomiyaki is to the local food culture. I'm convinced that there are more okonomiyaki shops in Hiroshima than there are pizza shops in NYC. It doesn't take much to convince me either since even in the residential area I was staying with my relatives, a bit northwest of central Hiroshima around Yokogawa station, there are about a dozen shops just within the few blocks from the station to the apartment. Some are local chains, some are more upscale teppanyaki "dining bars", but most are simple mom'n'pop operations with seating for about 6-8 people around a teppan counter. And they all make more or less the same thing. I wondered how various shops differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Is it the sauce they use, whether it's the widely available Otafuku brand sauce, or some other local brand, or perhaps something cooked up by the shop owners? Or would it be offereing a wider ranging menu items, including yakisoba or yakiudon, or some teppanyaki favorites like kaki-bataa (oysters sauteed with butter) or hotate-bataa (scallops in butter), or butayaki, etc.? Or offering more subtle techniques like fresh noodles vs premade, or how soft the egg is cooked, or what type of tenkasu is used as well as the powdered nori mixture that's used that might be that difference? Whatever the case, it becomes apparent that the level of okonomiyaki making in Hiroshima is pretty high. I'm not sure there's a bad one around, but somewhere, there's probably one that fits perfectly with your preference. Or you learn what it is you like, and learn to order it that way at any of the thousands of okonomiyaki joints.
I got to try okonomiyaki three times while I was in town. I should preface that my trip to Hiroshima was to visit relatives and I was staying with a family with a toddler and an infant. This limited my opportunities to chowhound around town, but luckily in terms of okonomiyaki, there's a great compromise in Hiroshima: delivery. Delivery is usually offered by larger chain operations, and I wondered if that would deter from my enjoyment, but it didn't. The first place we ordered from was Daichan (大ちゃん), with several locations in Hiroshima. My relative claimed that Daichan made the best regular okonomiyaki (soba-buta-tama: noodles-pork belly-egg) that's available for delivery. I was told that these delivery operations have developed their own containers and did the research to figure out how quickly they need to be delivered before the steam impacts the texture of the okonomiyaki. I'm not sure if this is the protocol for ordering delivery, but the call was made an hour or so beforehand and given an appointed time for delivery. "Please have it delivered to this address at 12:30." And as if it were genetically imprinted to be punctual, the bell rang at 12:29. We were eating by 12:33. Here's what came: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4009/4331343237_a796923dfb_o.jpg
As promised, it was piping hot, and seemed to have lost a minimal amount of crunch. They were cut up into bite-size squares. The version from Daichan seemed to be the classic Hiroshima style, with the cabbage finely shredded, and the aonori (nori powder) adding that old school element. For my first okonomiyaki of the trip, this was like seeing an old friend.
The next time the mood struck, we ordered delivery from a place called Toshiro (十四郎). Toshiro offers a more bold approach with their okonomiyaki, with a tangier sauce, thicker noodles, and an array of slightly unorthodox fillings to choose from. I ordered the standard with horumon (beef small intestine), and my relative ordered one with potato/mayo/cheese. And as before, delivery was timely and the were piping hot. Here's what came: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4063/4324631286_9b28291cff_o.jpg
And the horumon okonomiyaki: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2695/4324631346_5940a5c779_o.jpg
While the version from Daichan was like an old friend, the okonmiyaki from Toshiro were like my new cool friends. Since I have been on a horumon kick in Hiroshima (see here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/685700 ), I had to give a go with the okonomiyaki. I'm not sure if it's attributable to the bolder sauce, but the chunky, slightly fatty, and chewy horumon went perfectly with this version. I'm not sure I would have liked this topping as much with Daichan's version. The real surprise, however, was the potato/mayo/cheese. The mayo wasn't crisscrossed over the okonomiyaki like you'd find anywhere else in Japan, but it was incorporated into the mixture along with the potato and cheese, kind of like a hot potato salad. And with that tangy Toshiro sauce, the potato/mayo/cheese filling was subtle, but it all worked. My relative really likes this newfangled version, and so does the little 2-year-old in the house (see here: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4062/4332075918_4dbd99894e_o.jpg ).
My third chance at eating okonomiyaki was on my own around Yokogawa station for lunch, and while I had a dozen or so places to choose from, I went with the Mitchan branch, just outside the station. While the original Mitchan branches in central Hiroshima get long lines, and feel like a culinary destination, the one at Yokogawa is much more subdued, serving the locals. This branch seems a little old and worn, but friendly as the library of magazines and manga books that covers the back wall of the restaurant for patrons to peruse. I sat at the counter and ordered the standard soba-buta-tama with the addition of nama-ika (raw squid, as opposed to ika-ten, or fried squid, which might be a more popular ingredient in Hiroshima). I was asked if I wanted to eat off the teppan or if I wanted a plate, and I specified eating off the teppan, and no plate. I sat close to the lone guy engaged in his manga book, as he neatly, and effortlessly ate his okonomiyaki from the teppan. I must have come off like a novice with the little spatula, unable to make the clean cuts all the way through the crisped mound, making a slight mess as pieces of pork or squid were dangling from little strings of uncut meat, carrying some stray cabbage straight to my lap. But after the initial fumbling, I recovered and learned from my manga mentor, by making bold, full-fisted strokes to cut completely through the okonmiyaki, into neat little bite-sized pieces. I really like ika as an addition to okonomiyaki as it adds the right texture and flavor. I certainly prefer it over shrimp, but I might have to go back to that ika-ten next time.
Like Daichan's okonomiyaki, Mitchan's was again like revisiting an old friend. Mitchan's okonomiyaki in central Hiroshima was my first ever okonomiyaki of this style, and now, years later, I'm feeling like I'm getting to know my old friends, as well as making new friends, in the variety of ways one can enjoy eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. While I'm sure there must be some hardcore otaku elitism for okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, I just don't get the sense that it's as intense as say, pizza in NYC, where for many, there's the correct version and nothing else. Maybe in time I'll come to feel differently about okonomiyaki, but in Hiroshima, it seems much more open to interpretation, that is to say, to your konomi.
Okonomiyaki deconstructed: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2790/4331337553_338d626d48_o.jpg
We dropped by a place called Hassei, about a block off Heiwa Main Ave and Namikidori Shopping Ave for more okonomiyaki and a couple of teppan dishes - another nice meal. Unlike Lopez, the teppan counter is relatively short, and the majority of the space has teppan tables accommodating two to four guests. Very casual and fun, the clientele appeared to be all local, much like Lopez.
The food was very good in a pleasingly different way. All dishes are prepared on the teppan grill by the counter, then transferred to your table's teppan grill to keep them hot. The "pancake" portion was much smaller, the soba appeared to be not boiled prior to being grilled, and the portion size seemed smaller than Lopez.
We ordered the beef tongue and kim chi pork with egg off the teppan menu and thought the two dishes were perfectly executed.
We hope to try places like Daichan or Benbei to broaden our okonomiyaki experience. Once we're back in LA, okonomiyaki choices will thin out drastically...
I'm currently in Hiroshima on family matters and had a window of time to get a little educated on the okonomiyaki scene here. I yahooed, "best okonomiyaki" and this post was first on the list.
I should have searched on this board including, "E Eto"! Anyway, I did end up looking up more Chowhound posts that were related and this post came up next. I saw Lopez Okonomiyaki touted on a couple other hits from yahoo, which intrigued me. Your info on Lopez Okonomiyaki confirmed the high level of skill here, so my family and I hopped on the #7 to the Yokogawa station, got lost trying to find the place sans GPS and tried to initiate the GPS - failed. Luck would have it (or I should say typical Japanese hospitality would have it) that a young man offered his help to walk us directly to Lopez Okonomiyaki. He appeared to be getting off work and was on motorcycle, but got off his motorcycle and literally walked with us pushing his cycle to take us to our destination - such a kind gesture that I won't forget. Hoping to return his kindness, I invited him to have dinner with us, but he actually was going to work at the time I imposed on him.
During our encounter, the gentleman explained to us that he was familiar with Lopez Okonomiyaki. He confirmed that they offered really tasty okonomiyaki, that it was almost always busy - mostly locals and people working in the adjacent neighborhoods - and that we should expect a wait up to an hour based on it being around 7PM. Our wait was about 40 minutes, which we later felt was time well spent.
Its location is off the beaten path - a handful of blocks east-southeast from the train station in a mostly quiet residential area. Typical of mom & pop eateries, the place was small and cozy with a nice burnished look indicating years of constant patronage. The U-shaped teppan-style bar accommodates about 17 guests. In classic Japanese tradition, you are warmly greeted by Fernando and Makiko Lopez, and their two assistants. Knowing that Fernando was originally from Guatemala, it was refreshing to see an expat carving out an exemplary niche in such a foreign land relative to his origins, particularly in okonomiyaki - Hiroshima's hallmark dish. After talking with him and his wife, they revealed that they spent quite a bit of time in the US before establishing themselves around Yokogawa. This also helped in that while my Japanese is still very rusty, their English is superb. When Fernando earlier asked if we had a chance to peruse the menu that was in Japanese, I explained that we were from the US and that I was having some difficulty reading the menu. He effortlessly switched to English and handed me the English version of the menu.
The menu is simple and straight forward, listing (I think) about eight different iterations of okonomiyaki and various optional toppings/additions on one side of the menu, and some teppan and Latin dishes most which are teppan-adaptive along with drink options on the other side. As you've mentioned, the most unique topping here is the jalapeno peppers. The peppers are chopped and in a vinegar solution. We found it to be a nice contrast to the various starches and rich pork and egg. And the egg was something that caught our eyes as well - all beautifully fresh double-yolk eggs that Fernando specifically requests from his supplier. As you mentioned Fernando learned much of what he knows from Hassho, and this was one of the aspects he feels that adds a nice additional dimension of sweetness to the okonomiyaki experience.
Another reason for our seeking out a sublime okonomiyaki experience was a sort of tribute to my late mom. Being from Furuichi, she was Hiroshima through and through. As a kid, I remember her making okonomiyaki at least once every two or three weeks. In her declining years, she obviously couldn't make okonomiyaki as in the past. We asked here several times for her "secrets" on seasoning and techniques, but she'd always respond with vague proportions, use a little of this or that. Pretty much how one would expect a mom who never measured things would respond on a dish that was so "as you like it." As anyone familiar with okonomiyaki would expect, Fernando's version was different from my mom's, but was stellar just the same. In fact, as the four of us received our own okonomiyaki within a minute of each other, the anticipation of our experience was exceeded by the smell and taste from our first bites - sublime.
Our orders for okonomiyaki were all niku-tama-soba except one niku-tama-udon. One with cheese and jalapeno, two with cheese, and I left mine up to Fernando - he threw me a curveball with nama-ika (I never had this in okonomiyaki), along with jalapeno and negi. We sampled each others and could have easily been happy with any of these iterations. I can't emphasize strongly enough on the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Fernando's abilities and techniques are second nature to him, and Makiko keeps effortlessly integrates her motions to complement his, as the assistants do as well. It's not so much clockwork behind the counter, as it is like a subtle continuous dance.
I've always been used to okonomiyaki to be about a three-serving meal. I have a pretty healthy appetite, as does my son, and my mom's versions (I'm assuming) were on the slightly smaller side. Fernando makes his okonomiyaki in the size of a full meal - American sized meal. I haven't been to other okonomiyaki places yet, but I'm guessing Fernando's are one of the bigger versions of this dish. We were stuffed after finishing our meal. If my son refuses more food, I know we ate a lot.
Fernando mentioned that okonomiyaki places are typically where one drops in, eats, and promptly leaves. His is different as it seems people tend to linger and socialize here. I think this can be attributed to its "local" factor, as well as another aspect that Fernando mentioned - many okonomiyaki places don't offer beer. He does - good cold draft beer, as well a shochu. I can't imagine not having a great okonomiyaki experience without a nice cold one - having a meal at Lopez Okonomiyaki is like hitting the okonomiyaki jackpot. Thanks for mentioning this place, and I know my mom thanks you as well...
Thanks for the report. I've also become a Lopez local (I'm in walking distance). But I usually go there for lunch, since I don't like waiting. Also, I don't think I know an okonomiyaki place that doesn't serve beer. And Lopez's size is pretty much par for the Hiroshima course. It's hefty.
By the way, if you're in town for a while, drop me a line through my email on my profile page. I have a lot of good chowing I can show ya around here.
re: E Eto
Thanks for the info and offer. We're here for another couple of days, then to Kyoto for a bit of sight-seeing before returning to LA. Preparation for this trip left me cross-eyed so I didn't do much looking into food - I've been a bad Hound. I know that when I see your posts, it's pretty much a slam dunk. I'm still spending time with relatives so I honestly don't know how much time I will have on my own but we will see. Thanks again...
What a pleasure it was for me to read your passage. It brought back memories of me & Mrs. J.L. getting lost many a times looking for restaurants in almost every city we visited in Japan (including Hiroshima), only to be rescued almost every time by the incredibly kind locals who returned us onto the right path.
I wish you & E Eto many great meals in Japan!
Thanks for the good tidings. As we were navigating the narrow streets, I was thinking of some of your posts about seeking out these kinds of places. From the perspective of an outsider, even the "average" places are pretty amazing. I know there's crappy food here as well, but the curve in general here is much higher. We just made a short trip to Sogo on the way back from visiting, and the breadth and quality of eats in there alone had us oohing and ahhing the whole way through. Dedicating so much floor space to food alone underscores how much folks here embrace food culture.
Being on the ground around Hiroshima, it's been difficult to avoid okonomiyaki joints, and I've been having my fair share. There's an interesting history as to how the okonomiyaki developed in Hiroshima. As with its cousin from Kansai, okonmiyaki became a popular food during the war, as it provided an alternative for something filling during the rice shortages. Though I'm not certain how/why Hiroshima's layered version developed, the predominance of the names of okonomiyaki shops ending in "-chan" is because many of the first shops were opened by widows of the casualties from the war.
Also, as I pondered in my original post, what differentiates one okonmiyaki shop from another? I learned a few things from a friend whose parent ran a shop. First, most every shop starts with Otafuku brand sauce (Hiroshima's favorite brand), and then the sauce is doctored up by adding any number of ingredients and usually, the sauce is "aged" for a few days to allow the flavors to come together before it's used. Noodles are another differentiator, whether they're bought from a local producer/supplier, or made in-house, thick/thin noodles, etc. Most okonmiyaki joints also serve yakisoba, so the noodles need to be amenable for these two dishes. Finally, there are the add-ons. While the more straightforward places stop at the basics, many shops try to add some personal element, adding some flair to the humble dish.
Among the handful of places I've visited, a couple stand out. Teppanyaki Toshiro in the Kusunoki neighborhood near Yokogawa station might be my current favorite. I mentioned their delivery business in my original post, and I still like their bold version with the thick noodles (and their innovative potato/mayo/cheese version). The original teppanyaki shop doesn't do these newfangled versions, but they do offer a number of "otsumami" (or side) dishes from their teppan, many with their misoyaki sauce with a good spicy kick. My favorite might be the okonomiyaki with their misoyaki horumon (beef small intestine). The combination of the miso sauce and the okonomiyaki sauce just works for me, as did all the small dishes we ordered.
Lopez okonomiyaki is usually in the top 10 places mentioned in Hiroshima. It's a bit unusual in that it's run by a Guatemalan chef. He trained at the famous Hassho before opening his own shop, and he has quite the following. Like at Hassho, the noodles are fresh, and boiled before it hits the teppan. The basic okonomiyaki (niku-tama-soba, or meat-egg-noodles) could be the best version I've had to date. Lopez offers unusual toppings like jalepeño, to give it a Latin touch. The side menu also provides some Guatemalan touches with a beef tongue stew in a chile sauce.
Bembei in central Hiroshima (with two restaurants) is more of an izakaya/dining bar/teppanyaki that serves okonomiyaki. They offer a few different set menus, all of which include okonomiyaki as the final filling course. Bembei is especially useful because it is a place to gather with groups, drink and linger, which is difficult to do at most okonomiyaki joints. I did enjoy their straightforward niku-tama-soba, but they have a few "special" okonomiyaki I'm interested in trying.
Many of the other joints that I've visited were mom-n-pop operations or small places with a single person running the show. They all reached a baseline level of quality that didn't disappoint, but neither stood out like the ones I mentioned above. I have a few other places on my list to try, which I hope to try soon. I've come to realize though that one okonomiyaki a week is probably my limit.