Last Bite: Street Eats

Hiro dreams of Okonomiyaki

After working as a sushi chef for more than two decades, Tokyo native Hiro Watanabe yearns for a change. Trained in his native Japan, Watanabe worked as a sushi chef in Alabama and Tennessee before moving to Utah 11 years ago. He’s now a sushi chef at Draper’s Wasabi restaurant but wants to create his own business that serves Japanese street food to Utahns. Most notably, Watanabe wants to cook up fresh okonomiyaki, a dense pancake-like dish popular during festivals in Japan.

“I want to introduce something new to people here,” Watanabe says. “Okonomiyaki is kind of comfort food—street food—in Japan. Everybody likes it.”

He hoped to have his food truck, Lucky One, up and running by summer but still has a way to go. He only just registered his business and still needs a website or social-media profile, both a challenge for him as English is not his first language. He envisions getting his start at farmers markets and is now connecting with other food-truck owners to figure out how to make his dream come to life.

His food-truck concept is simple, just like the dish it will serve: Okonomiyaki consists of just a few ingredients—mainly flour, baking powder, egg and julienned cabbage mixed together and fried in a lightly oiled pan with whatever mix-ins the eater desires. Watanabe says shrimp, mixed seafood, sliced pork belly and squid are all popular choices in Japan, but he’s also experimented with American toppings such as pepperoni and pulled pork.

But the add-ons don’t necessarily make the dish. “Sauce is boss,” Watanabe says, explaining that the sauce used for okonomiyaki is a cross between teriyaki and sweet barbecue sauce. Once the steaming pancake is doused in sauce and Japanese mayonnaise, it’s then sprinkled with seaweed flakes and fish shavings and is ready to be gulped down.

Lucky One will offer just two types of okonomiyaki pancake at first: curry and original. Watanabe says he’s also thinking about serving karaage, a Japanese boneless fried chicken, and if he eventually is able to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he’ll offer even more street foods such as takoyaki (fried octopus pieces).

Transitioning from making fresh fish dishes to fried street foods is a big leap, but Watanabe is just fine with leaving the sushi world behind—the American one, at least. “I already miss Japanese sushi,” he says, explaining that American sushi focuses more on rolls and incorporates a lot of cooked elements.

“For the Japanese, sushi is about freshness of seafood,” he says.

For now, Watanabe, like any a chef trying to steer his career in a new direction, can only look ahead and dream of the days when he can drive the streets of Utah and deliver authentic, tasty meals, widening the spectrum of what locals know as Japanese food. Unfortunately, okonomiyaki is not popular in Utah. “Not yet,” he says.

Have advice for or want to assist Hiro Watanabe in his new venture? He can be reached at
[email protected]

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