For all the talk about New York being an expensive city to live in with restaurants that are often out of reach, there are still places like Otafuku in the East Village
where one can get a unique gustatory experience for under $10. Sure, the entire place is the size of your bathroom and there is only standing room to eat (if you’re lucky). But this is New York, and if you live here you know that size is not equal to space. It’s what you make of it. And what Otafuku has done with nary a space to sit is quite remarkable.
It’s far from fancy. Three guys and a griddle plus a hardwood counter where they dump the nori, bonito, Bulldog sauce and Japanese mayo on your selection.
There are only three things on the menu: takoyaki (dumplings with octopus), okonomiyaki (potato and cabbage pancakes with pork), and yakisoba. I like simple menus. It keeps the restaurant focused and maintains the quality of its limited offerings.
A wall poster describes their offerings in detail:
“TAKOYAKI: Takoyaki, octopus balls, maybe called Japanese Comfort Food made by pouring a liquid paste of wheat flour into round metal molds and adding chopped octopus, ginger, scallion, and tenkasu to the paste and broil the mixture like little balls.
OKONOMIYAKI: Okonomiyaki is a Japanese style pancake made using a batter of flour, water and egg with shredded cabbag, corn, meat (beef or pork) or seafood (shrimp or squid) grilled on a hot plate and topped with special sauce, mayonniase, dried bonito flakes, dried seaweed powder. Okonomiyaki literally means Cook what you like, and customers can get choose (sic) their own favorite ingredients and then cook up their Okonomiyaki.”
My favorite is the takoyaki and okonomiyaki combo for $9, a full meal for even a big eater such as myself. I ask for extra ginger and red pepper powder and they gladly oblige, recognizing I must know my stuff. I’m not Japanese, but my country was a Japanese colony for a while. I’m just teasing. All I know about okonomiyaki I learned in New York, from Otafuku and in the homes of gracious friends.
|Takoyaki on the left and okonomiyaki buried in bonito flakes on the right, plus extra red ginger.
I enjoy watching my food made in front of me because I can see the simplicity of the process: potato flour batter and some vegetables, a hot griddle and some chopstick and toothpick maneuvers.
|Turning the takoyaki, as seen through a hot and oil-splattered window.
As far as the finished product, it’s the best of its kind. I hardly find okonomiyaki in Japanese restaurants (I’ve seen it once on a menu in 10 years of NYC dining, and it was nothing like Otafuku’s). The okonomiyaki is soft, flavorful, and served with an abundance of toppings and sauces. The takoyaki is crisp on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. I believe I only see takoyaki in Japanese market food courts, and rarely at that. This combo above remains to be one of my favorite quick go-to meals in the city. The crowd that gathers outside the cramp food stall seems to agree.
There is only one outdoor bench to sit on, and it has a warning sign.
The Otafuku lady guards the stall from the bark of wood in which she is carved. This box that must be as narrow as one king bed offers a secret that’s hard to guess from outside.
I’ve made okonomiyaki at home. It’s pretty good, but it can never be made with this much love. As far as Japanese street food (until a future trip to Tokyo), Otafuku has my heart.
236 East 9th Street New York, NY 10003-7503