Griddle Me This
Photo by Anne FishbeinOkonomiyaki may be the homeliest food in creation, a squat, unlovely, vaguely circular mess of batter, cabbage and egg, slicked with a tarry black substance made from catsup and Worcestershire sauce, inscribed with mayonnaise, and dusted with curls of shaved, dried bonito that shudder and writhe on top of the pancake like a thousand pencil shavings come to gruesome life. Okonomiyaki is simultaneously crisp and gooey, sweet and savory, bland and funky as hell. When you are presented with your first okonomiyaki, you don’t know whether to kill it or to eat it. Japanese cuisine may be known for its great refinement and exquisite seasonality, but okonomiyaki is a coarse, animal delicacy, meant to be consumed with lots of friends, lots of abandon and even more beer. It used to be referred to as “Japanese pizza” when it was the specialty of a local after-hours restaurant called Pannic House around the time of the ’84 Olympics, but in its sheer bulk and exuberantly gross abundance, its effect on the stomach may be closer to a Japanese Hollenbeck burrito instead.A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the okonomiyaki at the Gardena restaurant Tombo, a restaurant whose deftness with the oozing slabs I admire, dozens of readers complained. Almost all of them suggested the okonomiyaki specialist GaJa, and several of them were less than polite in their insistence. Slighting GaJa among expatriate Japanese in Los Angeles is apparently as unwise as rooting against the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion.GaJa is a small, pleasant restaurant on the western edge of Lomita, tucked inside a Japanese mini-mall that also includes a ramen bar, a video store and a hockey-supply emporium, as well as an elegant bakery, Chantilly, whose sesame-filled cream puffs and fragile butter cookies set the standard for Japanese pastries in Los Angeles. Okonomiyaki parlors tend to be perpetually sticky, smelling of old oil and furnished with tattered copies of salacious manga, but GaJa is a nice place, well-ventilated and impeccably clean, decorated with wall posters announcing noxious soju drinks (stick to draft Kirin) and endless permutations of the restaurant’s specials: “Top 3 Okonomiyaki: (1) Modern mix; (2) Pork; (3) Hiroshima-style mix.” If you’ve ever wanted to know what Japanese-style carbonara tastes like (soupy Noodles Romanoff with shimeji mushrooms and bacon), what the most popular flavor of Japanese risotto might be (curry), or just what is in a Japanese parfait (whipped cream, green tea mochi, red bean paste and what looks an awful lot like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes), this restaurant is definitely for you.Osaka-style okonomiyaki is a thick, meaty concoction bristling with teriyaki chicken, cod roe and mochi, plum and herbs, natto and scallions, or dried fish and squid legs. Okonomiyaki, infinitely customizable, can include basically anything that happens to be on hand in the kitchen, up to and including the infamous okonomiyaki ballasted with Spam, corn and cheese. I like the version with kimchi and pork, but then again I like practically anything with kimchi and pork.Okonomiyaki in the manner of Hiroshima, the other great school of okonomiyaki cookery, is more or less the same, except that the ingredients are fried separately and combined at the last moment rather than cooked all together. The egg is blanketed over the pancake rather than mixed right in, and the fillings will almost always include a slug of stir-fried noodles layered in at the center.GaJa puts a certain amount of effort into its identity as an izakaya, a snack-intensive Japanese pub, and the small dishes tend to be pretty good here. The item identified on the 40-page menu as “fried octopus and squid cartilage” is a delicious thing — chewy, sucker-intensive and Kentucky-fried, and the well-marinated fried chicken is as good as it tends to be at Japanese fried-chicken restaurants. The clam hot pot is nice too, heavily garlicked and red with chiles, and the oysters served on the half shell with spicy garlic sauce are good too. Okonomiyaki restaurants often have a small specialty in takoyaki, fried, battered octopus, and the version here, which you sizzle yourself on the inset tabletop griddle, is almost wholesome, little octopus-studded pancakes that are even better than the usual puffy octopus balls.When you order okonomiyaki, a waitress lights the burner under your tabletop and disappears for 15 minutes until the griddle is hot enough to smelt tin. She brings out the raw ingredients, which are sometimes arranged prettily in a big bowl and sometimes laid out in a series of ramekins, like the mise en place on a cooking show. With the batter, the meat and the eggs comes a laminated bilingual instruction sheet — bubbly and brown where the plastic has accidentally touched the grill — that is at least as detailed as a full Paula Wolfert recipe.You film the griddle with oil, brown the meat and mix the bowl of goop together with a spoon. When the time seems right, you pour the batter, which contains cabbage, bright red splinters of pickled ginger, onion, egg and a huge, squishy quantity of grated mountain yam, with just enough flour to bind it, over the meat to cook. If you have done everything right, the batter should coalesce into a perfect flat circle. If you haven’t stirred enough, the pancake will form something of an oblate spheroid, and will probably brown unevenly, but will more or less taste the same.Okonomiyaki is incredibly labor-intensive, even for veterans of shabu-shabu, sukiyaki and Korean barbecue. For the “modan”-style okonomiyaki, you are required to brown meat, stir-fry noodles with broth and sauce, grill a pancake, transfer the noodles on top of the pancake, glaze with more batter, and somehow flip the huge, ungainly mass in a single motion, so that it lands back on the griddle still intact. When the mass is done, or at least brown and crisp on the bottom, you cut it into wedges, paint it with sauce, squirt it with mayonnaise, season it with dried chile, a vigorous shake or two of powdered seaweed from a canister, and as many bonito shavings as it will hold. With any luck, you’ll have dinner. GaJa, 2383 Lomita Blvd., Suite 102, Lomita, (310) 534-0153 or www.gajaokonomiyaki.com. Lunch Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m to 2 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Thurs. 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sun. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer, wine and soju. Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $19-$32. Inexpensive lunch specials. Recommended dishes: fried octopus and squid “cartilage,” takoyaki, okonomiyaki.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.