I work moderately hard to find restaurants that I think my guests from out of town will enjoy; I am often wrong. Last evening, I chose Ron of Japan for my Mom. She enjoys a similar restaurant in Indiana called House of Tokyo particularly for its fried rice. It was a favorite when my sister and I were growing up (mostly because they lit the flat grill on fire at least once).
Something I know to be true about these Japanese restaurants in the United States is that they really aren’t Japanese at all. The two things House of Tokyo had going for it was the big grill fire and a dish called okonomiyaki (お好み焼き).
If you aren’t familiar with Japanese cuisine, okonomiyaki is a big circle of cabbage and stuff. The stuff can be many things – seafood, other vegetables – and it’s all bound together with a flour batter. So there’s no surprise that in the U.S. it is billed as a “Japanese Pancake” or (even more misleading) a “Japanese Pizza.”
That’s how House of Tokyo had it on their menu – Japanese Pizza – and because I was a weird, daring little kid, I ordered it one time just to garner some attention. “Whoa…what is that?!” Everyone at the group table stared as the chef presented a bowl and dumped out a gooey-looking blob onto the grill.
He let it sit while continuing with everyone else’s “samurai chicken or fish” and then (much like a pancake), he flipped the whole thing over to grill off the other side. Then he poured a special sauce in a small bowl just for me – a dark brown, thick ooze that goop-ed out of a large bottle with nothing but Japanese text on the side.
That’s when the table’s gaze quickly turned to my little kid face as they thought, “You’re going to eat THAT?” It was one of my successful do-something-weird experiments. That blob and the goop sauce was pretty darn tasty even though I had no idea what I was eating.
After many experiences like that with dining (some not so successful – I’m looking at YOU, mole sauce), I wasn’t afraid to try this similar restaurant in Chicago with my Mom. Surely they will have okonomiyaki, right?
As we were seated with four other gentlemen, Mom and I sized up the place and its differences from our high House of Tokyo standards. I wiggled into the booth and immediately heard language I was intimately familiar with. “Whoa, these guys are actually Japanese!” I silently rejoiced. Then of course my next thought, “Why on earth are they HERE?”
The men quickly made conversation with us (in English) and revealed that they were in town for a conference and it was their tradition to visit a new Japanese restaurant every time they were in Chicago. Tonight was the night for Ron of Japan as it was closest to their hotel.
These gentlemen turned out to be the best part of our meal. Sure, the grilled meat and vegetables were acceptably tasty, but the opportunity to exchange thoughts about Japan, Chicago weather, business travels, and their experience with massive American food quantities was far superior to any teriyaki chicken we could have received.
I even had opportunity to say a few words in Japanese that were appropriate, thus capturing their attention and admiration for my understanding of the language. Sadly, the menu lacked okonomiyaki, but I received a great deal of information about where to find the best when I visit Kyoto.
My homemade rendition of お好み焼き