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Atlanta Orders In: OK Yaki pops up in Cabbagetown while waiting for its own home

Corban Irby, owner of OK Yaki, prepares meals for takeout at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown. CONTRIBUTED BY CALEB IRBY
Corban Irby, owner of OK Yaki, prepares meals for takeout at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown. CONTRIBUTED BY CALEB IRBY

Corban Irby went to Japan as an exchange student and came home an okonomiyaki freak.

That was 10 years ago. Today, the 33-year-old with an Asian studies degree from Georgia State University has turned his love of the umami-laden cabbage pancake, one of the great drinking foods of Japan, into a business.

After staging his OK Yaki pop-ups around Atlanta for almost four years, and picking up 15,000 Instagram followers, Irby recently announced plans to open a brick-and-mortar location on Moreland Avenue. Meanwhile, as pop-up-in-residence at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown, he's flipping pancakes, frying gyoza dumplings, and simmering Japanese beef curry for takeout, delivery and patio dining.

Even for an industry that’s been upended by COVID-19, Irby’s story is a bit unusual.

A scrappy little endeavor that popped up regularly at Atlanta restaurants (Ria’s Bluebird), breweries (Eventide, Monday Night, Wild Heaven) and art galleries (Mammal) before the pandemic, OK Yaki now finds itself camping out at a restaurant that’s in the process of reopening. At the same time, Irby is building his own space, without knowing what kind of service it might offer.

OK Yaki’s kombu burger comes with tots. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
OK Yaki’s kombu burger comes with tots. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

OK Yaki won’t move into its new 44-seat home in East Atlanta’s Seville development for at least four months. Irby, who savors okonomiyaki as a group experience, meant to be enjoyed with beer or sake, had no intentions of doing takeout when he put together his business model. But, the world has changed. “If we have to continue doing the takeout until the time is right, we’ll do that,” he said.

He won’t be alone.

Jarrett Stieber opened his long-awaited Little Bear in Summerhill in late February, on the cusp of the pandemic. Also in Summerhill, Parnass Savang and Rod Lassiter debuted Talat Market on April 24, at a time when dining room service was barred statewide. Both Little Bear and Talat Market, which originated as pop-ups, currently do takeout only.

Irby grew up in Douglasville, and graduated high school without a set career path. After attending college for one semester and playing music for two years, he decided to get serious about his education, and enrolled at Georgia State, where he took Japanese. “I wanted to learn a language that was written in different script and that was from a country I didn’t know anything about,” he said. In order to qualify to spend his junior year in Japan, he had to switch majors, from economics to Asian studies.

Once in Osaka, he fell in love with the cuisine. He began to host okonomiyaki parties in his dorm, and even bought an electric griddle for the sole purpose of making the pancake.

OK Yaki’s large okonomiyaki-yakisoba combo is seen here, with pork belly and fried egg added. The noodles (with added veggies) are under the pancake. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
OK Yaki’s large okonomiyaki-yakisoba combo is seen here, with pork belly and fried egg added. The noodles (with added veggies) are under the pancake. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

After college, Irby worked for a Japanese food distributor in Florida for a year. That was followed by two years in the Atlanta office of a Japanese shipping firm. During that time, he realized he missed the food culture. In 2016, he began his Friday night okonomiyaki pop-up at We Suki Suki in East Atlanta Village.

“It was kind of wild,” he recalled. “Getting off work on a Thursday from an office job, and then going straight to Buford Highway and getting all the ingredients and getting everything ready until late in the night. Then, waking up early to go into work early so I get out early. Then, doing the whole pop-up on a Friday and staying up late.”

It was hard work, but he found his calling. "'If I am enjoying it this much and it's this hard," he remembers thinking to himself, "then I should just do this instead."

OK YAKI

Menu: Japanese diner food, with a few twists

Alcohol: beer, cocktails, sake

What I ordered: Japanese curry with tonkatsu pork; kombu burger with tots; combo of okonomiyaki with pork belly (plus fried egg) and yakisoba with veggies. I really enjoyed the curry (generous enough for two meals) and the burger (made with beef, kelp and bonito, and topped with mozzarella, slaw and okonomiyaki sauce). The pancake-noodle combo blew my mind. I could eat it every day. Irby threw in an order of house-made pork and chive dumplings — excellent.

Service options: order online for pickup (including curbside) or patio dining; 2-mile delivery radius, $4

Safety protocols: follows standard guidelines (gloves, masks, sanitizer, social distancing); encourages contact-free purchases; can't use restroom without a mask

Address, phone: at 97 Estoria, 727 Wylie St. SE, Atlanta; 404-522-0966

Hours: 5-1o p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays.

Website:okyakiatl.com

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

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