Food & Drink | OSAKA RESTAURANTS

Kiji: Innovation and tradition in 'okonomiyaki'

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

As everyone in Osaka and every guidebook about the city will tell you, okonomiyaki, that pancake-like Japanese dish, is this city’s soul food. It’s comfort food, fit for every man, woman and child. Some might argue the same for takoyaki, octopus batter balls, but that is another discussion for another column. This is about okonomiyaki, and what might be one of the best places to chow down on the city’s most famous dish.

I use the word might, because despite my best efforts there are so many Osaka restaurants serving okonomiyaki that I have yet to visit. And the dish can be a touchy topic. Osaka tends to fancy itself the center of the okonomiyaki world, but so, too, does Hiroshima, which prepares the dish a little differently. It’s an ongoing rivalry.

One of the best things about Kiji is that it’s hard to find. This works in your favor since it’s been included in the Bib Gourmand section of the Michelin Guide and has become ever more popular. Kiji is located right in the middle of Umeda, where four major train lines converge, meaning it’s easy to get to, but hard to find.

While searching for it, we passed a middle-aged couple three times — they were also trying to find it in the warren of alleyways beneath Hankyu Station. We beat them to the entrance, where we joined a healthy queue.

Kiji is cubby-hole tiny, with four tables, a bar counter, the kitchen and a staircase along which the line for service runs up to the street. The trains rolling by like earthquakes overhead also make for an interesting atmosphere.

We ordered on the stairs and waited for about 30 minutes. You’ll be waiting a while longer, as they only start cooking when you take your seat at the teppan steel hot plate that takes up the better part of your table.

The okonomiyaki at Kiji is humble — there is none of the giant pizza-sized servings currently in vogue at other establishments. Kiji is also modest with the mayonnaise. In fact, you could say they have their own way of doing things.

First up was the mixed okonomiyaki: octopus, prawn, squid, chikuwa (fish paste), konnyaku (jelly made from devil’s tongue) and pork. Standard stuff, but there was also a hint of something that tasted like Italian mascarpone cream cheese.

Our second okonomiyaki was a little unorthodox as it came topped with tomato ketchup. Beneath was a bed of fried potatoes and prawns. As with the first okonomiyaki, despite so much being packed into a small serving, at Kiji they manage to not make it feel like overload. This is essentially the key distinction between good and great okonomiyaki: making what is often a very dense dish feel light, fluffy, playful and delicious. And at Kiji, they’ve been nailing it for years.

Open 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (or before if stock runs out); okonomiyaki from ¥680; Japanese and English menu; Japanese and a little English spoken

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5