Hailing from the south of Japan (predominantly the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima) and popular all over the country, okonomiyaki are one of the world’s great comfort foods. The savory pancakes start with a seasoned white-flour-based batter and can include whichever meats, vegetables, or starches its creator desires (most often mountain yam, cabbage, and pork belly). In Japan, some restaurants let diners griddle their own, and in Hiroshima, there’s even a four-story food court “theme park” devoted to the dish. While New York City hasn’t given any food the amusement park treatment, it does have two restaurants that specialize in it, and a number of places around town serve excellent variations.
Whereas it was once difficult to find even traditional varieties, New York City is currently experiencing an okonomiyaki boom that’s led to some creative riffs on the robust junk food. Ivan Orkin may have kicked things off last year with his insane, inspired “Lancaster okonomiyaki” — a waffled swatch of Pennsylvania pork scrapple sauced and garnished in Osaka fashion that’s since disappeared.
But at Bar Goto (245 Eldridge Street, 212-475-4411), chef Kiyo Shinoki complements eponymous barman Kenta Goto’s flavorful, sophisticated drinks with stylish, pillowy cakes served in rectangular cast iron skillets. The watering hole’s signature offering is a surf-and-turf Hiroshima-style number with pork belly and squid, and Shinoki even channels American comfort food with a three-cheese (white cheddar, Gruyere, and Parmesan) okonomiyaki studded with beech mushrooms and umami-rich sun-dried tomatoes. Both pancakes ($12) arrive drenched in zig-zags of sweet brown sauce and mayonnaise, with bonito flakes and pickled red ginger on the side.
Pay your respects to the more ubiquitous Kansai style — whereby the ingredients are mixed into the batter beforehand — at Otafuku x Medetai (220 East 9th Street, 646-998-3438) pervasive Japanese restaurateur Bon Yagi’s modest East Village storefront specializing in okonomiyaki, takoyaki octopus doughnuts, and taiyaki — fish-shaped cakes holding sweet fillings. In business for fifteen years, the shop serves up archetypal soft cakes ($9) griddled dark brown and crowded with pork belly or shrimp, buried under liberal squirts of Kewpie mayonnaise, Worcestershire-like “okonomiyaki sauce,” the dried seaweed powder called aonori, and wispy bonito flakes.
For a tonier conventional version, don’t miss the paunchy rounds ($10) at Ganso Yaki (515 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn; 646-927-0303), Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono’s rollicking Boerum Hill izakaya. There, the okonomiyaki are quartered and presented in small, high-rimmed cast iron pans, giving them the appearance of quiche or Southern spoonbread on the plate. The flavors are all there, however, suspended in an airy pancake with pork belly and cabbage fused together on the grill.
In Hiroshima, the locals favor a stacked design, with layers of ingredients piled on top of one another rather than mixed into the batter. Doused in sweet brown sauce, spicy mayo, and a heap of bonito flakes, the sassy flapjack at Mocu Mocu (746 Tenth Avenue, 212-765-0197) starts with a paper-thin pancake ($9) and piles on cabbage, thinly sliced pork belly, and a tangle of yakisoba noodles under a runny fried egg. The gallery, shop, and restaurant also cooks up duos of baked, waffle-like okonomiyaki ($6.25), which sandwich fillings like herb-rubbed chicken and coconut shrimp.
Okiway (1006 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-417-1091), which stylists Vincent Minchelli and Amanda Jenkins opened in Bushwick over the summer, trades in classic and nouveau okonomiyaki. From the brightly lit open kitchen, chef Michael Arrington sends out pancakes topped with sticky sweet American BBQ pork ($15) and one geared toward pescatarians ($16), studded with plump mussels and topped with a bullseye of tartar-like mussel mayo. The former Morimoto chef’s “Mexican Osaka” ($15) successfully deviates even further with cilantro, avocado, chorizo, and dueling splashes of chipotle mayo and cilantro crema.
Over in Williamsburg, Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi of quirky Jewish-Japanese restaurant Shalom Japan (310 South 4th Street, Brooklyn; 718-388-4012) top their super-crisp version with pastrami shavings and bracing sauerkraut for a trip down deli-memory lane.
And at buzzy Long Island City ramen-ya Mu Ramen (12-09 Jackson Avenue, Queens; 917-868-8903) Per Se vet Joshua Smookler’s pancake bears so little resemblance to the original that he puts “okonomiyaki” in quotes on the menu. The blini-size, cornmeal-scallion cakes support a fancy jumble of flaky smoked trout, micro shiso, foie gras maple syrup, and glistening jewels of briny trout roe and tobiko. It straddles the line of categorization, but is no less delicious for its boundary pushing.