The Japanese octopus treat takoyaki is a delectable, griddled delight.
Is takoyaki the perfect snack? The little golden-griddled orbs of savory batter with a bit of octopus at the center are everywhere in Japan. Narrow streets lined with holes-in-the-wall serving lowbrow, tasty stuff like tempura and ramen have takoyaki spots. It goes ideally with after-work beers at the drinking-and-snacking bars called izakaya. Stands sell it at subway stations, cooked to order, ready (and probably all eaten up) in the few minutes before your train comes.
Shota Nakajima, the chef of rarefied Seattle Japanese restaurant Naka, effuses, “I love takoyaki!” He says it’s one of the main street foods in Osaka, where he trained and takoyaki originated — meaning, he notes, “They have more of them than Starbucks in Seattle.”
I first had takoyaki stateside and loved it. Then, a few years ago on a trip to Thailand, I was disallowed by my travel companion from stopping at a takoyaki stand set up near the escalator inside a Bangkok mall. I hadn’t been able to let that disappointment rest.
Then I finally heard about Tako Kyuuban, inside the Uwajimaya food court. Right here in Seattle — and also sometimes popping up at the Bellevue Uwajimaya — you can watch the takoyaki-making process up close, have the results handed directly over to you, and eat them as soon as they reach just below mouth-burning temperature, spearing them with a wooden skewer under bad lighting amid the din of a crowd. It is an excellent way to spend any 10 minutes of any given day.
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Even those who find the idea of octopus off-putting will probably love takoyaki. The amount of meat is small, just enough to provide a little chewy center at the middle of a fluffy, waffle-like little sphere. At Tako Kyuuban, the takoyaki-makers use a small brush to oil up the round holes of the specially designed griddle, pour the batter, then deftly drop an octopus bit onto each segment, followed by a scattering of scallions, pickled ginger, dried shrimp and bits of tempura over the whole. Each ball is formed by the nimble use of two implements like knitting needles, used to turn and shape them as the batter rises.
Your order — six for $4.93, eight for $5.84 — is dressed with sweet-and-savory tonkatsu sauce, Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed and bonito flakes, served to you in a paper boat. The bonito flakes — super-thin shavings of smoked, dried tuna — crinkle and wave in the heat that rises off the balls of takoyaki, lending a celebratory (if initially unsettling) dance to the affair.
Takoyaki done right has so much going for it: a crispy outer shell, a light-and-squishy savory interior, an instant of contrasting octopus texture, toppings that not only hit the creamy and the umami spots but also actually put on a show.
The version at Seattle’s Samurai Noodle (three locations) bears the telltale uniform browned sheen of a bath in a deep-fryer, rather than the variegated, deliciously almost-burnt markings of a takoyaki grill. Its pedestrian presentation: six balls sitting on a plain white plate, with a little well of sauce and a blob of mayo for DIY dipping — no happy bonito doing the wave. If you care much about these apparent inferiorities when you eat it, however, you’re more resolutely picky than I am. While I wouldn’t go out of my way for Samurai’s rendition, if I’m there for a bowl of ramen, it’s pretty certain that their takoyaki’s also going to end up on the table. Some takoyaki may be better than others, but it is, as they say, all good.
In Belltown, Kushibar and Wann Izakaya have takoyaki (at happy hour, too), and Kizukai Ramen & Izakaya (formerly Kukai) serves it on Capitol Hill, in Bellevue and at Northgate. Chef Matt Dillon — his latest restaurant is Upper Bar Ferd’nand in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row — has been quoted and requoted declaring that the takoyaki at Maneki — a true Seattle institution, serving sushi for just over 100 years in the I.D. — is his favorite cheap eat.
Of course, if you’re ambitious, you can make your own takoyaki. The Internet’s rife with recipes, and both the octopus and your choice of several different takoyaki pans are available at Uwajimaya. (The best, heaviest pan has a wooden handle and an obliviously happy-looking octopus molded into the cast iron.) I haven’t gone this route yet. It seems akin to making your own French fries — something you could master with time, trouble and expense, while right out there in the food court, they’re being made perfectly, in a matter of minutes, with expertise. Tako Kyuuban’s takoyaki-makers told me they never get bored with making them, it’s just boring waiting for people to come order them.