I only know a handful of Japanese words, just enough to fit in my palm, really. They were learned during high school summers, when I worked for an ESL program for Japanese exchange students. We’d do English classes in the morning, and spend the afternoons on field trips or playing games in the gym. Just so you know, sixteen year-old Japanese girls may seem sweet, but they are ruthless in a game of dodgeball.
Each summer, one day was set aside for a special lunch; the girls formed groups and prepared various Japanese dishes, teaching us about the different ingredients, preparations, and traditions surrounding them. When all the dishes were ready, we’d share a big group meal and spend the rest of the afternoon in food comas; it was always my favourite day on the job.
It was also how I came to know about okonomyaki, a word that requires a bit of sounding out (try it at least three times), but is addicting to say once you’ve got it. A group of the girls made it one summer, and described it as a ‘Japanese cabbage pancake.” That didn’t sound particularly appetite-whetting, but it ended up being my favourite dish of all. In its most basic form it’s a mix of flour, eggs, cabbage, and sometimes carrot and green onion. This mixture is fried on a grill and finished off with Japanese mayo, teriyaki sauce, bonito flakes, and various other toppings. It’s serious, serious comfort food.
Now, you ask, where the heck can I get it in Richmond? Banzai Sushi, that’s where! I was there for lunch yesterday, saw okonomyaki on the menu ($5.95, a hand-written addition) and made it the first thing I ordered. I also got a yam tempura roll ($2.75, I wanted something basic), a tama unagi roll ($4.95), a tamago nigiri ($1.15), and a tobiko + quail egg nigiri ($1.65). Someone had warned me the rolls at Banzai are huge, but I didn’t realize just how much I’d over-ordered.
Turns out, Banzai is the Vegas of sushi; everything’s just BIG, BIG, BIG. Each piece of sliced roll was like a saucer, and the nigiri were way too large to pop daintily into my mouth. The value is pretty remarkable, though; with yam tempura rolls, for example, I’m used to getting a small roll with nothing but a tempura-ed piece of yam inside.
This roll, however, was filled with many pieces of yam, cucumber, lettuce, and avocado. The problem was that it’s nearly impossible to eat; the slices have a huge circumference but are thin, so they fall apart when you attempt to pick them up. I’m not a master with chopsticks, but adept enough that I don’t usually have this problem. I liked the tama unagi roll with bbq’d eel and sweet egg, but it was also tricky to taste in one bite. The pieces kept falling out, so I ended up tasting the different fillings separately, rather than all together.
As for the nigiri, the tamago (sweet egg omelette) was delicious, but the tobiko + quail egg was just too much. With something as rich as rice + roe + straight yolk, I can’t handle much more than a single bite, and this took at least three.
I was torn between thinking “this is such an amazing value! They put avocado in my yam roll!” and “It’s just too too big.”
Perhaps nostalgia influenced me, but the okonomyaki was my favourite part of the meal. It was dark brown on the outside, soft on the inside, and covered in mayo, teriyaki, and more dancing bonito flakes. It tasted rich and comforting, just like I remembered.
Banzai’s large rolls may not be for everyone, but the place was packed so they’re clearly for many. Maybe they were all just better with chopsticks than I am, but at least you don’t need much skill to eat the okonomyaki.
Vegetarian options available
They also specialize in party trays. Good for a crowd!
Really friendly service