New to the 'Scene'
Today's stop was one of the best openings over the last calendar year. Gaijin debuted on Lake street in the West Loop in November of 2019. Right around the time we were returning from an epic adventure in Japan, my first of hopefully many visits. Chicago's Japanese food scene is lacking to say the least. We have a couple spots in the city that are worth trying and also in the last year we've seen the areas ramen game take a step up. But for the most part the best Japanese restaurants in the Chicaoland area are in the suburbs and they're pretty low key choosing to cater to the areas Japanese businessmen who spend time between the Arlington Heights area and Japan. That said the city's dining scene has seen a handful of new Japanese leaning bars and restaurants incl. Gaijin.
Recently Opened in West Loop
Gaijin is the product of local chef Paul Virant and his business partner(s). I remember reading that Virant's wife fell in love with Okonomiyaki while studying abroad in Osaka. So over the years he'd made it for her and eventually decided he wanted to make it for everyone. More on the dish most associated with Osaka in a minute. When we first visited Gaijin the only thing one thought of when they heard the word Corona was the mediocre Mexican beer loved by gringos. So we got to enjoy what Virant and team set out to do. When they laid out the groundwork for their Osaka style eating establishment they wanted to bring the energy of some of Osaka's better bars/ restaurants where the Okonomiyaki is as popular as the beer. Well for now that's on hold and it may be for a while. That said Gaijin has a menu that adapts to takeout pretty well and they also have an outdoor dining area.
Kombu Marinated Vegetables
Items like Kombu (edible sea kelp) marinated vegetables to start are pre-made and served at room temp anyway so I imagine this is a good way to start your meal whether dining in or taking it to go. With summer here this dish should be in your order if there's any type of heat wave happening. As with those savory pancakes Osaka also loves Yakisoba. Japan's preferred version of stir fried noodles (yaki = fried and soba = buckwheat noodles) is on the menu at pretty much every Okonomiyaki house in Osaka. I'm a big fan of Gaijin's version with the pork belly. They do a nice job of frying up the soba noodles and the pork belly is super crispy outside but almost creamy on the inside.
Yakisoba with Pork Belly at Gaijin
The main event at Gaijin is the aforementioned okonomiyaki. As stated this to Osaka as pizza is to Chicago. As with pizza okonomiyaki is also regional. In Osaka where the dish is said to have originated they make it much like a pancake. The batter and other ingredients such as flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), dashi, eggs, green onion, and shredded cabbage etc. is cooked on both sides and usually on a teppan flattop which separates cook from diners. They have this setup at Gaijin which is kind of like the tableside hibachi experience still popular in the suburbs. Cooked okonomiyaki is topped with ingredients that include okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter), aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. Over in Hiroshima the dish is equally as popular except it's made differently. There the ingredients are layered rather than mixed and they always include noodles.
Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki
Because I'd just ate Osaka style okonomiyaki in Osaka I opted to try the Hiroshima version from Gaijin. I think I like this version better although I'll happily pig out on the Osaka style too. I just preferred the layers of flavors with the fried noodles lurking at the bottom. Either way both options are satisfying for anyone looking to scratch that okonomiyaki itch. One itch I was worried about being able to sooth was my newfound love for Kakigori. The Japanese dessert was one of the things I most looked forward to on our trip to Japan and that's on an entire scale of the trip level, not just the food portion of it. Kakigori is my ultimate food crush and I was very happy to see Gaijin doing it.
Pineapple Upside Down Kakigori at Gaijin
While there is a spot serving kakigori inside Mitsuwa Market's food court Gaijin is the first place in the area to take it seriously. In fact they have a pastry chef who like me has a big time love for Japan's favorite summertime treat. If dining in you'll be able to choose from a selection of recipes that the pastry chef and her team came up with. I suppose I should explain that kakigori is Japanese style shave ice flavored with homemade syrups and sweetener like condensed milk. According to Wikipedia the "origins of kakigōri date back the Heian period in Japanese history, when blocks of ice saved during the colder months would be shaved and served with sweet syrup to Japanese aristocracy during the summer." The syrup options are endless but to me it's all about the fruit. I liked the pineapple upside down kakigori we tried but it wasn't quite the same thing as the stuff in Japan and that's not a knock bc most all Japanese food in the States isn't quite as good and that's true of most foods. That said this is still good shave(d) ice and they're doing a walk-up window this summer.
Walk-up Kakigori Window
We stopped for kakigori on a hot and humid day recently and it was a cool experience, literally. We just walked up to the window where a guy makes them to order. You don't get the same creative selection as you do inside but they have a handful of fruit flavors that all come with a snowcap which is a splash of condensed milk throughout. She got raspberry and I got the cantaloupe. All the syrups are made from real fruit so no complaints there but I do wish they used a little more of it. It's better than nothing as they say. Meanwhile Gaijin is one of the spots I really hope we see on the other side.
Cantaloupe Kakigori at Gaijin
950 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60607