More than two months after my momentous visit to Japan, I’ve become a certified “Japanophile”, someone obsessed with Japan and anything Japanese. Of course this so-called obsession of mine is strictly limited to food, so I’ve been combing the local Japanese food stores, groceries, and restaurants ”“ the more obscure, the better ”“ and even cooking Japanese food in my own home: sukiyaki, omuraisu, katsudon, and even my own version of soba.
For further fueling this mania with Japan, my profuse thanks goes to DCF reader Cecile, who tipped me off to an okonomiyaki restaurant, Kagura in Little Tokyo, a cluster of Japanese restaurants along Pasong Tamo in Makati.
Little Tokyo is one of those places that I’ve always known was there but never really paid any attention to. It always seemed like a no-man’s land for its sheer lack of people and the apparent shuttered-up appearance of its establishments. An evening visit showed me that the place completely transforms at night into its total opposite: tables and chairs set up outside where Japanese locals, Filipinos, and other United Colors of the world are loudly toasting with drinking vessels filled with Japanese beer and shochus (Japanese distilled wine made from rice). Every restaurant has an akachÅchin (red lantern), its Japanese characters depicting what type of food is served: a sushi-ya, a ramen-ya, or in the case of Kagura, an okonomi-yaki-ya which I’ve been to at least five times in a month and a half.
Stepping into Kagura is like walking into any typical Japanese neighborhood restaurant. It’s small and compact with a counter for eating as well as two low tables at the back for groups where diners are expected to remove their shoes and sit cross-legged on cushions. Various memorabilia hang around the room, most of which are photos of Japanese baseball players and other baseball tokens. After I spend a meal here watching the Japanese owner stare mesmerized at the baseball game being shown on the tiny TV, I’m convinced that he’s as huge a fan of baseball as I am of food.
After being seated, the female servers hand me a menu. What kind of okonomiyaki do I want today? Ebi-tama (with small shrimps added)? Negi-yaki (with spring onions added)? Mikkusu-yaki (The works)? While scanning the menu, two Filipino yuppies come in and ask for sushi. In Little Tokyo, as in Japan, restaurants specialize in only one type of Japanese food, a fact that has escaped these new arrivals. They’re politely directed to a restaurant next door that will give them their sushi.
In Japan, okonomiyaki is especially popular in Osaka and Hiroshima, and so the two types of this Japanese pancake are named after these two areas. Osaka-style okonomiyaki is the original, more common concoction of chopped cabbage, flour, and other additions bound together with an egg and cooked on a hotplate. The ingredients you can add to the mix are listed on the menu such as okonomiyaki sauce, nori (dried seaweed), and bonito flakes can be added as your appetite dictates. Yakisoba noodles are added in the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
Kagura serves both and after several taste tests (read: visits), I can’t decide which I like better. The one without the noodles is more straightforward, more doughy. The pancake with noodles is more substantial, with added chewiness. Both are great depending on what I’m in the mood for, which is usually the okonomiyaki with everything on it (pork, shrimp, squid, tako [octopus], and cheese) with extra bonito flakes, please.
The okonomiyakis are cooked on the stainless steel hotplate at the front of the room, and if you sit at the counter, you’ll get a front row-view of the process. Or, if you like baseball, you can also watch the game ongoing on the tube just like the owner whose eyes dart upward occasionally as he goes about making the okonomiyakis together with one assistant.
This famed Japanese food comes to the table looking like a space saucer with flickering antennas ”“ the “antennas” being the wispy bonito flakes that are its glorious garnish. Sprinkle on some togarashi (chili) flakes and you’re good to go: the subtle spice of the chili slices through the richness of the Japanese mayo, the divine fishy-ness of the bonito flakes, and the supreme moistness of the okonomiyaki that you can eat up with chopsticks and the little metal spatulas provided.
While Kagura specializes in okonomiyaki, they also serve a decent tempura.
Little Tokyo Unit 2,
2277 Pasong Tamo St., Makati
11:30 am – 3:00 pm
6:00 pm – 10:30 pm
CLOSED on Mondays