23 Charles Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and tea: $30
Despite its reputation as “Toronto the Good”, our fair city was supposedly quite the hedonistic place during the disco era. Centred around the Yonge Street strip, beautiful young things in white suits or wrap dresses and wedge heels congregated at the dance clubs to do the hustle, the bus stop and to drunkenly sing along to Dancing Queen by Abba. Like all club-goers, they likely wandered out into the night looking for a bite to eat, at which point, like so many generations of Torontonians after them, they would follow the beacon of the orange glow down Charles Street West to Okonomi House.
Open since 1978, Okonomi House brought Japanese street food to our city before most people had even tried sushi. Okonomi yaki is a cross between an omelet and a fluffy pancake, laden with the ingredients of choice (various meats and fish), and presented still sizzling in a cast iron pan.
The menu is small, including a few teriyaki-based bento boxes and some soba, standard sides such as miso soup, salad and edamame, but with the main focus being on the okonomi yaki.
This is neither a fancy or formal place. The décor appears to remain unchanged from thirty years ago, with the orange glow of the rice paper lamps tinting all surfaces of what for many years I thought to be some sort of burger joint. Seating is hard booths or some stools along the counter where patrons can enjoy the show in the kitchen.
Customers order by ticking off boxes on a menu order sheet, and by consulting the menu board above the cash register. We start with an order of edamame ($2.75) that is neither terrible or outstanding. It’s just edamame – sweet, salty and filling enough to tide us over until the mains arrive. The hungry husband orders a side of miso soup ($1.95) to match the one I get with my bento box. Again, it is neither fantastic or offensive – just good, honest miso with some cubes of tofu and flakes of nori.
Green tea ($0.50) comes in bags, something that disconcerts slightly, but once it is allowed to steep, the quality is clear. This is the traditional Japanese green tea with the toasted rice, and is warming and earthy.
The salmon teriyaki dinner ($10.45) is one of the most expensive items on the menu. It’s generic again, as far as bentos go – the rice is dished up with an ice cream scoop, the salad is typical iceberg lettuce, and the salmon is a generous portion in a sweet teriyaki sauce, although it is overcooked and slightly dry.
The star here, and really, the only thing worth ordering is, of course, what they do best. The squid okonomi yaki ($5.85) arrives puffed and steaming topped with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise, sharp with rice vinegar. The addition of aonori and katsuobushi (dried seaweed and bonito flakes) for an extra fifty cents makes the dish ethereal, as the bonito flakes flutter like butterfly wings in the steam rising from the dish. The pancake itself is light, fluffy and delightfully eggy.Flavour options range from beef, chicken and pork ($5.85 each) to vegetable ($5.45) and a variety of seafood items ($5.85 – $6.05 each). A seafood deluxe version is the most expensive thing on the menu at $10.95.
Desserts, too are simple, custard pudding ($2.35) or generic green tea ice cream ($2.95). Neither are memorable, especially compared to the main course of okonomi yaki.
It’s hard to hop on the wayback machine and imagine Torontonians eating okonomi yaki thirty years ago, but Okonomi House has withstood the test of time. Given its location, it’s a surprise that more people don’t know about it, but maybe people walk past and don’t realize what’s on offer inside. Once they slide into a booth and laugh at how funny they look in the bright orange glow, I’m betting they’re all easily hooked on this much-loved street food, just like the Dancing Queens of the disco era must have been.