Otafuku has long been New York’s go-to spot for takoyaki, the delicious gooey dough balls filled with chopped octopus, but the mini-eatery is getting a run for its money from an East Village neighbor, the recently opened “Japanese soul food” restaurant Ichibantei (401 East 13th Street, 877-731-4339). So the question on everyone’s mind, is, obviously, who’s got the better balls?
Takoyaki are a popular street food in Japan and are made by filling special spherical pans (similar to popover pans) with batter and cooking over high heat until crisp on the outside but still doughy inside. Topped with a special sauce (think Asiany barbecue sauce with a heavy hand of Worcestershire) and dusted with bonito flakes, takoyaki are like little orbs of hot umami goodness.
Ichibantei’s menu is dominated by fried meat, but down at the bottom you can find the takoyaki listed at $5 for six pieces. While Ichibantei’s ambiance isn’t much to write home about (a flat-screen TV and Christmas tree are about it, while hip-hop music blares in the background), there’s ample indoor seating at tables and on barstools unlike at Otafuku, which offers only an outside bench (fun in the summertime, less so in November).
The takoyaki (pictured above) arrive piping hot and doused (really doused) in sauce with a generous portion of small bonito flakes that nearly melted into the sauce. The chunks of octopus are small — really more like niblets — but the octopus isn’t chewy at all, and the batter is almost pudding-like in consistency.
Next stop: Otafuku …
Otafuku’s takoyaki are also $5 for six pieces, but what differentiates the two restaurants’ balls is the amount of octopus featured. At Otafuku, you can actually see and savor chunks of octopus, and the takoyaki are showered with huge bonito flakes that recall a Japanese beachside campfire. Unlike at Ichibantei, the balls get a big squirt of mayonnaise, adding an extra element of creaminess to the dish. Moreover, the sauce is not quite as sweet as Ichibantei’s while a subtle hint of ginger comes through in the batter. On the downside, though, the balls were a bit breadier and a tad cooler than those at Ichibantei.
So whose balls reign supreme?
While Ichibantei gets mad props for indoor seating, at the end of the day, the excellent bonito and larger octopus chunks give Otafuku a leg up in this battle for best octopus balls.
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