"It's so damn hot...milk was a bad choice"
- Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) in the the film Anchorman, after realizing that chugging a carton to quench his thirst after a sweaty jog on a hot day wasn't the wisest of decisions.
I was to come to a similar realization when I invited five friends to an early dinner at Gaja Okonomiyaki in Lomita one balmy Sunday.
It was the tail end of one of those sweltering Southern California days we're now all too familiar with, but not yet accustomed. The sun had dipped below the horizon, but the air was still thick with heat. And although Lomita is close to Torrance, which is close to the beach, it still didn't make it any cooler in that black asphalt parking lot.
I had been yearning to try Gaja ever since a Chowhound by the name of Perceptor posted his drool-inducing photo spread for everyone to see. And then recently, Tony Bourdain went to Osaka on his Travel Channel show and had okonomiyaki in a place just like Gaja. Like a rat entraced by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I was lured by the call of this Japanese pancake dish and I e-mailed my friends to meet me in Lomita post haste.
The folly of my decision set in as soon as they arrived and we went inside to take our table.
Okonomiyaki, you see, is a cook-it-yourself dish like Korean BBQ, done on a table-top griddle built into each booth. There were about a dozen tables there, all equipped with these hot plates -- flat metallic grey cooktops connected to an unseen power source -- each of which acted like space heaters, pumping out BTUs into the enclosed room like coils in an electric oven. This, and the fact that the air conditioning was woefully underpowered, made the temperature inside the restaurant easily ten degrees hotter than it was outside. Taking my seat directly in front of our griddle, I could feel its radiative heat on my skin. If my chair was able to swivel and rotate, I'd be shawarma.
We were undoing the first few buttons on our shirts, shedding any unnecessary layers of clothing, and fanning ourselves even before it was time to cook. One of us pointed out the adage "if you can't handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen." This apt and hilarious observation captured the absurdity of the moment -- we couldn't escape the kitchen as this dining room *was* the kitchen.
But we had gone too far to chicken out. So, as the only person in the group who had any idea of how to cook okonomiyaki -- thanks to Perceptor, mmm-yoso's Kirk, and Daily Gluttony's Pam -- I started us off with an order.
Part of the appeal of okonomiyaki is that its communal and interactive. The word itself means "as you like it." Everyone is in control of how well the dish turns out since it is cooked and eaten fresh off the cooktop by you and the friends you've invited. And because it is slightly more complicated than just slapping a piece of marinated beef on a grate and watching it sizzle, an order of okonomiyaki comes with its own set of instructions.
That's right. Instructions -- a laminated "How-To" guide complete with a set of steps, diagrams and charts. It's even written in Japanese and broken English like those Sony VCR manuals from the bygone 80s.
When the first bowl of okonomiyaki batter arrived, I played the part of intrepid diner and expert cook by demonstrating the procedure to my friends as if I was auditioning for my own Food Network show. I took a spoon to task and mixed the toppings of raw egg, dried shrimp, diced scallion, folding it gently into the gloopy starch-and-cabbage-based batter. Then a squirt of oil from a squeeze bottle lubed up the griddle.
When it came to spreading the batter onto the cooking surface, I heeded the warnings on the instructional sheet which said that making two smaller pancakes was recommended for beginners. Being risk averse, I hedged my bet and made four.
The moment of truth came a few minutes later when it was time to flip. Not surprisingly, it stayed fully intact since the tight circumference of my small pancakes left a lot of room for error.
Then after a few short minutes, I brushed on some dark okonomiyaki sauce over the tops, sprinkled each generously with dashes of dried green seaweed powder, zig-zagged Japanese mayo, and placed a finishing crown of bonito flakes ever so daintily. I cut it up and portioned it out to my eager friends. We consumed it piping hot and oozy.
I'm proud to report that my creation was delectable. The batter produced a savory and springy, eggy pancake with the herby notes of scallion and the salty bite of the dried brine shrimp. The dark okonomiyaki sauce, a tart cousin of teriyaki, played against the sweet richness of the mayo. The bonito flakes and seaweed powder contributed an unmistakable Japanese character.
Seeing the success that I had with the first okonomiyaki, one friend -- who was a culinary school graduate and an ex-chef at Lucques -- took it upon herself to prepare the next batch.
Hers required a few more steps than the rudimentary one I made. First of all, there was raw pork belly to render and pieces of seafood to cook. Then there were noodles which had to be heated and stir fried. Finally, it's doused by the same base batter.
But when it came time to spread, she confidently formed one single, large circle with the circumference of a medium pizza pie. Her reputation as a professional chef was now on the line. And we all bit our nails waiting for her to do the flip.
How did she do? Well, upon flipping, the pancake fell apart in ragged patches. What didn't stick to the spatula made an ungraceful belly flop onto the flat surface. And although it tasted great, the whole incident left her open for some playful ribbing about her "supposed" culinary training.
Of course, I couldn't claim that I could have done any better -- that large and thick circular disk was as unwieldy and awkward to handle as a bowling ball balanced on a pool cue.
After being stuffed full of okonomiyaki and sweating like pigs, we breathed a sigh of relief when we left that stifling dining room. Outside, we were refreshed when our perspiration evaporated on contact with a brisk sea breeze. Surprisingly, the weather in Lomita had cooled considerably during the hour we spent in the restaurant.
As we parted company, we made a vow not to return to Gaja again until the weather is good and frigid...or until they install an air-conditioning system with supercooled air jets like those used at the "Backdraft" attraction at Universal Studios, whichever comes first.
2383 Lomita Blvd # 102
Lomita, CA 90717