An ode to okonomiyaki

Savory pancakes are the supper saviors you never knew you needed

Okonomyaki served at Osaka’s of Boulder. Credit: John Lehndorff

During my freshman year in a college dorm, the eating was easy, if not especially tasty. The first time I had to feed myself was a year later as a 19 year old living in my first multi-roommate apartment. 

I can’t recall anything I served when it was my turn to cook, but I distinctly remember the aroma of the vegetable pancakes a roommate dished one night. My butter- and syrup-drenched New England pancake upbringing was shaken. 

These savory cakes loaded with shredded cabbage and onions were a delight topped with sour cream and tamari sauce, with applesauce on the side. 

The pancake recipe came from a stained, dog-eared copy of The Tassajara Bread Book, the ground-breaking, Zen-inspired natural foods guide written by Edward Espe Brown. 

Only years later did I discover that the dish was inspired by okonomiyaki, the savory pancakes served in Japan. Okonomiyaki literally means “cook what you like.”

When the pancake craving overcame me on a recent Friday, I headed for Osaka’s of Boulder. Opened six years ago by Koji Tamura and his wife, Maki, the restaurant is Colorado’s okonomiyaki temple. 

While I pondered the menu’s many pancake variations delivered on a sizzling iron skillet, Tamura stopped by to chat. I shared my college pancake story, a tale that Tamura says echoes his own. 

“I grew up in Osaka. Okonomiyaki is home food there, and street food,” he says. “When we would come home from school, we made them with chopped cabbage, flour and eggs. Like a pizza, we had toppings we like but always with soy sauce.” 

When he was an engineering student studying in Los Angeles, the 20-year-old Tamura had classmates who were studying Japanese culture.

“It was a Friday night like this,” he recalls. “They asked me to make some Japanese food, and I only knew how to cook one thing: okonomiyaki. They loved them and asked me to make them again. I thought, ‘Some day I’m going to come back and open a place serving them.’” 

It was only after a successful decades-long global career at companies like Motorola that Tamura finally got to realize his dream. In classic, almost cinematic fashion, he weaves a Boulder origin tale that involves his daughter’s college choice, the study of Rolfing, world class running and, naturally, kale.

Osaka’s main menu includes authentic Japanese appetizers, soups, salad, sushi and ramen, but the star attraction is okonomiyaki. The pancakes are offered traditionally with cabbage, but — this being Boulder — Tamura created a dairy- and gluten-free option. 

Toppings include a breakfast-y bestseller topped with strips of sizzled pork belly, as well as beef, seafood and a pizza-like pancake crowned with melted mozzarella and cheddar. The Hiroshima-style Modan Yaki pancakes include noodles with a fried egg on top. 

Tamura’s brilliant okonomiyaki variation is the Osaka Burger, available only on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. These sliders are made with small okonomiyaki “buns.” The inventive fillings range from fried cod, sukiyaki beef or teriyaki chicken to vegetarian and plant-based options.

Osaka Burgers are so popular they were recently included in Yelp’s Top 100 Burgers in America

Tamura has one more dream. “I would like to open places, fast-casual restaurants, that serve Osaka Burgers,” he says. Then he rises and ambles off to visit with every table in the packed eatery.

Making veggie pancakes at home

Veggie pancakes are the one idea that has stayed in my meal arsenal since college. Besides being incredibly delicious, they adapt to all diets and to the ingredients you have on hand. They’re easy and quick to make, and pretty inexpensive. I recommend them to parents: If you want your kids to eat more vegetables, hide carrots, cabbage and broccoli in pancakes they’ll ask you to make again and again.

Here’s a recipe inspired by The Tassajara Bread Book and the okonomiyaki served at Osaka’s. Tweak and adjust it to your taste. 

Savory pancakes 

About ¼ of a Chinese cabbage, chopped very fine
1 small carrot, peeled and grated
About ½ sweet onion, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
2 cups flour
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
12-oz. can of evaporated milk (or 12 oz. half and half)

½ cup of cooked meat, seafood or cheese

Toppings and sauces

Mix flour, egg, brown sugar, salt and milk. Thin with water if batter is too thick. Mix in vegetables. Make pancakes in a well-oiled pan over medium heat for eight minutes or more to make sure vegetables cook. The bottom should be a very dark brown. You may need two spatulas to flip the pancake. Press down on the pancake to flatten, and cook for another eight to 10 minutes with a lid on the pan. Move to a plate, top and serve hot. This makes about six pancakes, depending on size. Top with bacon, kimchi, fried onions, pickled ginger, Thai chili sauce, cheese, chicken or seafood, plus sauces and soy sauce.

Here’s a simple okonomiyaki sauce: Mix ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon ketchup and a dash of hot sauce. 

Valerii Dekhtiarenko – stock.ado Adobe stock

Turning sugar into vegetables

Boulder was widely lambasted when the city launched a sugary soda tax almost a decade ago. A stiff fee is added to soda, energy drinks and pre-sweetened tea. The proceeds now fund the City of Boulder’s Fruit & Veg program that provides qualified families with up to $80 per month for fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the City, about 580 families are currently part of the program. Details: 

Local Food News: Soup for you 

Soup Smith is dishing New England clam chowder, tomato bisque, chicken enchilada and other soups on the Hill in the food hall at 1310 College Ave. in Boulder. 

Chef Daniel Asher of River and Woods and Ash’Kara in Denver and Anne Cure of Cure Farms were among those inducted recently into Les Disciples d’Escoffier, an international society of notable chefs and food producers. Other local members include chefs Antonio Laudisio, Erik Skokan and Kirk Bachmann. 

Boulder Swim Club restaurant and bar is open in the Broker Inn, 555 30th St. in Boulder, serving an Asian-fusion menu. 

Coming soon: Tiffins Momo Corner, 1911 Broadway in Boulder (former location of Saucy Cluckers and Boulder Baked). 

Local farmers: Do you have 2024 CSA shares available? Details to: 

Words to chew on: When pancakes erupt

“The hot cakes rose like little hassocks, and small volcanoes formed and erupted on them until they were ready to be turned. A cheerful brown, they were, with tracings of darker brown. And the kitchen was full of the good sweet smell of them.” — From the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck

John Lehndorff graduated from McGill University in Montreal. He hosts Radio Nibbles and Kitchen Table Talk on KGNU.