Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Meet Okonomiyaki -- Haru Ulala
368 E. 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Google Local Info, including map, directions, and more reviews
My friend Kent spent a lot of time in Japan a few years ago. When I launched LA Food Crazy, he immediately e-mailed to ask if I had come across anyplace that serves okonomiyaki. I'd never heard of okonomiyaki. It was, he said, his favorite meal in Japan.
For Kent's birthday, he demanded okonomiyaki. He sent me the results of a Google search which had turned up four places that serve it in the LA area, and asked if I'd finish up the research and pick a place.
I said sure. After a full morning's research I had discovered... that there are only four places in LA county that serve okonomiyaki. Two are in Torrance (sorry, not driving there on a Saturday), one is in Westwood (Korean-operated... not necessarily bad, but not likely to be very authentic either).
And then there was a place I'd never heard of, Haru Ulala, near the south end of Little Tokyo. We were going downtown to visit the display of Oscar-consideration costumes at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise (an extraordinary yearly event, btw. Anyone into movies, costumes, or both should check it out), so Little Tokyo it was.
Turns out Okonomiyaki is worth the search, and Haru Ulala is my new fave J-town destination.
The place is just a half dozen banquettes, configurable into different sizes by clever sliding room dividers. Perfect for large-sized groups. Interestingly, though okonomiyaki is listed on their website, it doesn't appear on any of their confusing array of three different menus.
This is Izakaya-style Japanese food... which is to say, bar food. The Japanese equivalent of chicken wings, potato skins, nachos, and fried calamari, or perhaps more accurately, of Spanish tapas. All the items on the three menus are inexpensive, small plates of snack food.
We were totally stabbing in the dark with our order, but did pretty well once we got past the slimy "shredded yams," which dripped with a snotty goo; a decidedly un-Western aesthetic that the mild, jicama-like flavor failed to overcome.
Everything after that was fantastic. The grilled calamari with shiitake mushroom, thin strips of squid browned in butter with small, delicate shiitakes, was still being discussed days later. A small stewed pork rib was fall-off-the-bone tender. Fried soft shell crab served with ponzu dipping sauce was as light and tender as I've ever had. Fried cheese was as far from the mozzarella fingers at TGIFriday's as you can imagine.
But we were here for the okonomiyaki. In a couple of the other local places it's a make-it-yourself-at-the-table operation at, like shabu shabu or Korean BBQ. Going DIY would terrify me with this recipe. You can get an idea of how the operation should go here. To see how it can go horribly wrong, scroll about 2/3 down the page at this delicious-looking archive of Daily Gluttony -- a terrific food blog, btw. At Haru Ulala, okonomiyaki is mercifully prepared in the kitchen. We ordered two, one for the vegetarians at the table, and one seafood version.
How to describe okonomiyaki? It's somewhere between a pizza, a pupusa, an omelette and a latke. Shredded yam, cabbage, egg, flour, and your choice of ingredients get mixed up, grilled, flipped like an omelette, then slathered with a sweet brown sauce and drizzled with mayonnaise. One came with writhing bonito flakes on top -- a subtle flavor but a freaky image. Don't try eating this on acid. (Or... do. ) The fluffy eggs, crisp cabbage, and julienned Chinese yam (slimy goo thankfully cooked away in this version) provide a variety of textures that still doesn't overwhelm the ingredients you choose for your "pizza." The brown sauce and mayo help pull all the different textures and flavors together into a savory, creamy goodness.
Sound like hangover food? It is. It's rich, sweet, comfort cuisine perfect for a rainy night (if we ever have one of those again in L.A.), yet leaves you feeling surprisingly light and healthy. Wash it back with beverages from their extensive list of beer ($8.00 pitchers of Kirin) and soju (including an array of Japanese sojus, which are much more intense than their light, slightly sweet Korean counterparts), and it's hard to imagine a more satisfying and fun group meal.
I have read one or two mentions in other reviews of uneven service. Not for us! Our server Sayuko, aside from being take-her-home-and-keep-her adorable, gave us some of the best service I've had in recent memory.
And seriously, somebody out there needs to capitalize on the untapped okonomiyaki market. A stand specializing in this stuff next to a popular dive bar in Koreatown would make a fortune.