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Hiroki (Shimokitazawa - 下北沢 )

Last year, I discovered Hiroki. Les and I were in Japan for a second time and we were lamenting the disappearance of the little no-name okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) shop just beside the Akihabara station which served up thick slabs of super-delicious okonomiyaki.

Hiroki popped up as offering Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki and so we treked out, nailed our target and had a feast. So it was time for a return engagement, so off we (I) go...

...okonomiyaki is known in the US as a "Japanese pizza" which is just about the worst description possible for this treat. It is literally a small, thin pancake topped (or bottomed, read on...) with grilled seafood, vegetables or meat PLUS cabbage, noodles and other delights. All of it is grilled in front of you (depending on the place: by you or by the grill-master) and slathered with a sauce that is redolent of soy and mirin and sugar.

Hiroki serves Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki which involves either soba or udon noodles as part of the dish. Kanto-style okonomiyaki omits the noodles and is more, er, flat...hence the "pizza" description.

The restaurant itself is very small (one review says "shoebox") but it's comfortable for one or several. There is a main set of seats around their largest grill plus two small tables with their own grills. The extent of "grilling-your-own" is limited to cutting wedges of your okonomiyaki with a flat, spade-like utensil...

Sitting at the main grill is a treat in itself. All of the action happens right in front of you as you see your order go from raw to cooked. I suspect that they do have an English menu but since I read a decent amount of Japanese (especially food-related Japanese), the regular menu is my meal ticket. There are many different types of okonomiyaki with a myriad of toppings: squid (ika), shrimp (ebi), scallop (hotate), mochi (pounded rice cake), cheese (!), lettuce, garlic (niniku) and others. You can also pile up multiple ingredients as well. Then you choose between soba (thin, buckwheat noodles) or udon (thick flour noodles). For this trip, I chose the ika (squid) with soba noodles. Six thick, domino sized chunks of squid made their debut on the grill first...

The okonomiyaki starts off with a ladle of batter swirled into a thin pancake about 6 inches in diameter. Your choice of noodles is then placed on the grill along with your topping(s) choice in separate piles. The pancake is then topped with an impossibly high mound of shredded cabbage and two pieces of pork loin, sliced thinly, bacon-style. That whole pile is then seasoned and turned upside down so the pork can cook.

In the meantime, the noodles are seasoned and flipped. The toppings meet the same fate. We're getting close to eating...

An egg is cracked on the grill and swirled into a 6-inch omelette (ok, a rough omelette) then the noodles are placed on top of the egg. The pancake and cabbage pile is pulled close and the egg-noodle pile is inverted on top of the pancake-cabbage pile. All the while, your okonomiyaki master is keeping the pile contained by scraping stray bit back into the pile to keep it round.

The nearly-finished okonomiyaki is then painted with okonomiyaki sauce which is a not-to-sweet mix of thickened soy, mirin and sugar similar to, but not as strong as, a tonkatsu sauce. Green onions and flaked nori seaweed are then sprinkled on top followed by your grilled topping. A little patch of pickled ginger completes the okonomiyaki as it's pushed toward you ready to eat.

Since the okonomiyaki still sits on the grill, it stays piping hot. You cut wedges from it with the spade-like utensil and shovel it onto your plate. You can opt for more sauce and a little dab of mayonaise. It's a messy dish so you really don't have to worry about everything falling apart. Relax, enjoy, watch the show of the other patron's orders....your last bite of okonomiyaki will be a hot as the first.

The taste? There are so many textures and taste all going on at once. You get crunchy but cooked cabbage merged with hot noodles and sweet-savory sauce. The egg adds a nice richness as well. The topping add yet another dimension. It's all very satisfying and delicious.

Hiroki also makes yakisoba (fried soba noodles with meats and sauce), small dishes of grilled mushrooms, garlic and pork and other nibbles that you can eat with beer while waiting for the main event.

Hiroki is in Shimokitazawa (下北沢) which is a few stops from Shibuya (渋谷) on the Inokashira or Odakyu train lines. (The Inokashira is best ridden from Shibuya; the Odakyu from Shinjuku, although there are transfer points between Shibuya and Shinjuku to get there...). Once at the Shimokitazawa station, find and take the South exit of the Shimokitazawa station, walk straight-ish out into the main shopping street. At a four-way, heavily diagonal intersection, turn to your extreme left and up the diagonal street jutting out from the left, almost backtracking. If you see a curry shop to the right, then you're on the right street. Hiroki is about 200 paces up on the left. The restaurant front has a blue canopy with the word "Hiroki" in white on it. It's across the street from a corner, open-air Italian restaurant. Since Shimokitazawa is small, you can also ask just about anyone in the area for directions.

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