Okonomiyaki is the sort of food that inspires unreasonable, outlandish devotion. It is most commonly described as a Japanese pancake, a flat concoction of cabbage and batter cooked on a griddle and topped with various meats and a distinctive sweet and savory sauce.
That is technically accurate, in the way it is technically accurate to describe pizza as some dough, sauce and cheese baked with some toppings. The truth is, of course, so much more particular than that. Indeed, the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima in Japan have a passionate, quarrelsome rivalry about the proper preparation of okonomiyaki, just as passionate as the one New York and Chicago have about pizza.
With all of that in mind, it is not so surprising that Atlanta’s Corban Irby has devoted his itinerant pop-up restaurant, Ok Yaki, almost exclusively to this compelling dish. Several times a week, Irby can be found behind the griddle at various locations around Atlanta, including Thursdays at Ria’s Bluebird and Saturdays at Monday Night Garage in the West End.
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Irby makes his okonomiyaki in the Osaka style. On the griddle, he lays a dinner plate-size layer of tender cabbage and just enough batter, made with a homemade dashi broth, seasoned flour, and Japanese yam, to bind it together. Bright pink bits of pickled ginger are flecked throughout the pancake. Piled up on Ok Yaki’s griddles, it looks like an intimidating disk to handle, but Irby’s hands work confidently, flipping the pancakes until they are cooked to a deep golden brown.
The finishing elements are just as important as the base here. Once the pancake is cooked through, Irby smears the top with a dark, savory layer of classic okonomiyaki sauce, which tastes like a thick, salty combination of Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce. Kewpie mayo, a sweet rendition of the condiment imported from Japan, is striped on top of that in thin white lines. A handful of salty bonito flakes are tossed on along with a pinch of green, ground seaweed.
The result is a dizzying kaleidoscope of textures and flavors. The crisp, griddled edges of the pancake are balanced by the creamy, vegetal center of it. There is the fishy flavor of the sea in those fluttering bonito flakes and ground seaweed. There is the savory meatiness of the okonomiyaki sauce fighting with the creamy, sweet kewpie. It is greasy, rich, satisfying and a little overwhelming, not unlike the effect that one gets when ordering a plate of hash browns scattered, smothered, chunked and covered at Waffle House. I mean that as high praise.
Like Waffle House, okonomiyaki is best after a few drinks, which makes Ok Yaki’s current Saturday residency at Monday Night Garage more than suitable. This massive space, which sits alongside the West End’s stretch of the Beltline, is the location where Monday Night Brewing has expanded into producing excellent, interesting barrel-aged and sour beers.
At other locations, including a recently ended stint at Sun in My Belly, Ok Yaki is still figuring out the transition between pop-up and full-service restaurant. Irby is largely self-taught as a cook, though he studied as an exchange student in Japan and spent some time working for a Japanese restaurant distributor. Though Ok Yaki has been running for two years around town, Irby is still learning as he works.
In this way, Irby belongs to a vibrant tradition of boot-strapping chefs who have made Atlanta a more exciting place to eat in recent years. Parnass Lim Savang, Jarrett Stieber and Allen Suh, among others, all found a new audience for their food by cooking nights at the Candler Park breakfast diner. Perhaps no one exemplified this spirit better than the late Angus Brown, who turned a night-owl pop-up in East Atlanta into a burgeoning restaurant empire with Nhan Le before unexpectedly passing last year.
The expanded menu that Irby served on recent nights at Sun in My Belly and will serve at Ria’s Bluebird in the future included small plates and an expanded option of entrees. In comparison to the okonomiyaki, none of these were quite as compelling. A brown Japanese curry loaded with tender beef was fine but forgettable. Yakisoba noodles sauteed with small pink shrimp underwhelmed.
There were more impressive glimmers of Irby’s indulgent take on Japanese food, too. A plate of griddled, chewy kirimochi (rice cakes) topped with warm, crunchy kimchi and melted cheese was a fascinating, tasty snack of contrasting textures. The bamboo fizz, a smooth, foamy egg-white cocktail made with shiso leaf-infused sherry, Cocchi Americano and carbonated sake, is exactly the sort of sophisticated subtle cocktail I often crave with Japanese food and yet rarely find.
Undoubtedly, though, Ok Yaki’s main event is okonomiyaki. You’ll have a choice of protein. The topping of steak is absolutely fine, but what you really want to order is the pork belly. Sliced thin like bacon, the pork adheres and becomes the top, caramelized layer of the pancake. No matter where Irby is cooking it, this is a dish worth seeking out.
6 p.m.-midnight Thursdays. Ria’s Bluebird, 421 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta.
Noon-8 p.m. Saturdays. Monday Night Garage, 933 Lee St. SW, Atlanta.
See website for changing times and locations. 404-514-0706, okyakiatl.com.
Recommended dishes: Okonomiyaki, pork gyoza, yaki mochi.