"Hidden gem" are probably two of the most overused words in the foodophile vocabulary.
So it was really refreshing to find a restaurant that literally was just that: Hidden and a Gem.
Let me explain...
One of Osaka's most famous landmarks is the Umeda Sky Building - this towering structure and it's "Sky Garden" (not really a garden, more of a 360-degree viewing deck) offers a stunning bird's eye view of the city. In the basement of this building lies a very strange food hall unlike any I have ever seen before. No bright lights and busy tables swarming with shoppers and tourists here. Instead, when you head down into the basement you are faced with a series of dim (well, that is being generous - dark is more like it!) alleyways that wind their way around in the style of a traditional Japanese village. It may sound very tourist-trap-like but to be honest it doesn't seem like it as it is near deserted.
Or I should say, looks deserted.
I had read about Okonomiyaki Kiji restaurant on several blogs as the best place to try Osaka's famous savoury pancakes - Okonomiyaki. So after a few pointless rounds of wandering - all the signs were in Japanese and not a soul in sight to point us in the right direction - we finally found what seemed like a promising sign. It showed the do-it-yourself hot plate that is used to cook okonomiyaki to your liking.
On poking our head in, we were told this wasn't the place we were looking for but one of the staff said he will take us to the other restaurant (very obliging in showing us around to the competition - but he did it with the calm resignation of someone who seemed like he had done this many times before.)
We were deposited in front of a restaurant that by all appearances looked shut. Our handy guide disappeared and we were left wondering what to do - until a woman passing by urged us to slide open the door, enthusiastically reassuring us that Okonomiyaki Kiji was indeed open.
And there it was. A true hidden gem. There would have been no way of knowing it was there if we weren't ushered straight into the door.
The cheerful old owner welcomed us with a big grin, gestured at us to wait behind the line of people already looking to get seated in this tiny rabbit hole and after determining where we were from. "India? Ok, vegetarian only? Beef ok? Pork ok?" rapidly started mixing up the okonomiyaki batter (a mix of flour, yam and egg with various toppings - Okonomiyaki literally means "okonomi - what you like" + "yaki - fried").
On a trip that was literally star-studded by an unbelievably high number of exceptional dining experiences, eating at Okonomiyaki Kiji was definitely one of the best. And it was definitely the most inviting.
We were lucky to get prime seats at the counter. The patron plopped the pancake onto the sizzling teppan hot plate in front of us and then proceeded to cook it on both sides, flipping it with an iron spatula which is also the eating instrument of choice for this plump pancake.
As instructed "no slicing". The owner deftly demonstrated the best way to attack the okonomiyaki - quick firm jabs with the sharp edge of the spatula to cut the pancake into wedges before scooping it up with the flat side and shoveling it straight into our mouths - perfect!
The okonomiyaki is usually filled with shredded cabbage, dashi, spring onion, shrimp, squid, bacon-like fatty pork belly, thin strips of beef - as the name says, whatever you like - and once done is covered with thick, sweet otafuku sauce, aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and Japanese mayonnaise. Where has this pancake been all my life? It is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.
Osaka residents are people after my own heart. Literally, everyone in Osaka is eating - all the time! They even have a word for it "kuidaore" which means "eat until you drop".
The city definitely embraces its kuidaore culture whole-heartedly. Osaka is filled with lines of locals waiting to get their hit of takoyaki (fried octopus in batter balls), smoky and sweet roasted snow crab, slivers of fugu fish, melt-in-your-mouth wagyu short ribs... cheesy tarts, sweet soya-sauce filled mochi... you really don't know where to start or end.
For the best round up of Osaka's unbelievably delicious street food culture, there are few places to match Dotonbori. With its crazy moving giant crab and octopus shop signs and even crazier jingles of "Ya Ya Takoyaki" sung to the tune of "Alleluia", Dontonbori is heaven on a plate for any foodie heading to Osaka.
I can't wait to go back!
Click through the gallery for some of my highlights of Osaka's best eating out district.
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