Tonight I had dinner with Masa, the owner of my guesthouse in Namba, Osaka. Initially we were going to go to a traditional Japanese-style restaurant, on the nicer side, but as we were walking he mentioned some pancake place and I went "pancakes?" I remembered reading that Osaka was known for pancakes, so off we went. Called okonomiyaki, these "pancakes" are a regional specialty, and are not pancakes at all in terms of how you and I think of them. They consist of several layers, all cooked over a very looooong period of time as you sit there watching them refuse to cook. The biggest layer consists of cabbage, and whatever else you choose to throw in there. The restaurant we went to had about twenty different options: I opted for the vege route, Masa chose pork (although it resembled mere bacon bits to me).
This is brought to your table, which has a ridiculously hot griddle inlaid in it, an egg yolk scrambled into your cabbage concoction, and the whole bowl tipped on its head to sizzle on the griddle. From there, they come back a few minutes later with shaved smoke fish bits, layer them on top, and promptly flip it to cook the opposite side. (If I hadn't seen the fish I wouldn't have known it was there; it was absolutely absent as far as my taste buds were concerned. Which is a-okay for this buckaroo who isn't fond of the smoked fish.) Another few minutes goes by and they pile on a bowl full of ramen-esque noodles, precariously perched on top. Few more minutes, and this gets flipped. Then after infinity passes they come back, flip it again (crispy noodle side up), drop a massive dollop of mayonnaise on it, followed by a massive dollop of sweet barbecue sauce, followed by "ok you can now shovel it in your mouth so fast you'll torch your insides.
" And torch I did.
Overall, it wasn't great. Certainly not for the Western palate. An experience unto itself, sure. But probably the most average meal I've had. It was a bit heavy, and tasted like noodles coated in McDonald's Big Mac "special sauce" and sweet barbecue sauce (why so sweet??), with hot wilted salad mixed in. Just a bizarre texture and flavor combination. Not bad, just meh. And I felt obesely full after it. (Although in all fairness this is probably because I've taken to eating large lunches and small snacks for dinner; I wasn't remotely hungry at the time but had already committed a couple days ago to going out.) That, and aside from Benihana, where it's easy enough to get over the cheese factor because their food is so damn good, I'm really not a fan of the cooking in front of you thing.
It's hot and messy and you ALWAYS come out reeking of hot oil and grease and it clings to your skin and hair and clothing for days. Yuck. And I don't know about you but I go to restaurants to be pampered and waited on and COOKED FOR, not to have that process executed on my lap.
Next time I grab an okonomiyaki I'll be sure to snag one of the gyro-looking ones already prepared by street vendors -- less stench, and ironically enough, they look infinitely more appetizing.