4811 SE Powell
Todai. Sushi. Koji. Sushi. Yuki, Saburo, Hama. SUSHI. Japanese restaurants are everywhere, but most of them are sushi bars, buffets, or at least tout sushi as the primary reason to go. Except for a few noodle shops--none of which have the feisty energy of those in Japan--there's not much out of the ordinary. (Even Olive Stick, the inspired yakitori restaurant on 82nd, is looong gone.)
Enter Kyo-Fu, a tiny place on Powell that serves up "okonomiyaki," a savory Japanese pancake loaded with meat and veggies, flipped on a grill, and slathered with a tangy, thick, coffee-dark sauce. Popular and even loyalty-inspiring in Japan, it's a delicacy generally unknown here in the States.
"Kyo" is short for Kyoto, chef Taizo Kohara's native city. The Kansai region of Japan, including Kyoto and Osaka, is famous for these traditional Japanese pancakes. Many think that Osaka makes the gold standard for the dish, but Hiroshima has a version, too: stacked like lasagna, with layers of cabbage, noodles, and other goodies. Not to be outdone, Tokyo has monja, with a consistency closer to wet scrambled eggs. The Kyo-Fu restaurant, however, is strictly of the Kansai school.
As the menu itself will tell you, "okonomi" means "as you like." "Yaki" means "grill." Translation: concoct a special pancake of your own. The combinations are endless, but try a meat (anything but chicken works), a veggie, and shiso, a slightly pungent leaf that smells like mint and basil. At some okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan, you can mix and flip the mixture yourself on a tableside grill. For now, chef Taizo-san does it for you, working fluidly in the kitchen, like a hummingbird.
If you prefer to stick to the menu, try the pork okonomiyaki ($6.00), or, the barbecue beef and green onion ($7.50). Not a meat eater? Go with the cheese and mochi, filled with gooey discs of pounded rice cake ($6.75). Whatever you decide, here's the trick: ask the waitress for some "katsuobushi," dried flakes made from bonito fish. When sprinkled on top of the pancake, after a squeeze of mayo, these smoky, whisper-thin shavings are the perfect final accent. Miso soup with aburage (fried bean curd), and salad with sesame dressing come with your meal, along with hot tea.
If you go to Kyo-Fu with a Mt. Fuji-sized appetite, an Asahi Super Dry beer and a few starters will calm your yelping stomach before your okonomiyaki arrives on its hot little skillet. Whereas the slices of kabocha (pumpkin) are over-grilled and bitter, the gyoza (pork dumplings) are doughy, warm and sweet. The edamame arrive hot and sprinkled with salt. During happy hour (5:00-7:30), a generous pile is half price ($1.50), as are select other appetizers. The gekikara sausages are good, hellishly spicy, and not so out of place.
Aside from a few Japanese posters, prints and a row of masks above the window, Kyo-Fu is sparsely decorated. No worries--it feels like a neighborhood rib joint. (Read: well-made, fill-your-belly food, and no pretension.)
Maybe someday, Mr. Kohara will try his hand at an authentic ramen shop. One can only hope.