Two Japanese words to add to your vocabulary: okonomiyaki and omotenashi. The first is something you can eat, but according to restaurateur Koji Tamura, you don't need to use the word to order the dish at his new Boulder restaurant, Osaka's.
Okonomiyaki, a specialty of Tamura's home town of Osaka, Japan, is a fluffy cross between a pancake and an omelet — eggier than the former and firmer than the latter. It can also be compared to a potato pancake, only with shredded cabbage (and sometimes grated yam) as the primary vegetable bound together with egg and flour. If you haven't heard of the dish, that's because it's not exactly common in Front Range restaurants. Tamura says there are two main reasons for this. Okonomiyaki is a little trickier to pronounce and remember than words like sushi or ramen, two staples of Japanese cuisine that dominate the conversation here in the U.S. — and the style of restaurants that serve sushi and ramen aren't as well equipped to serve okonomiyaki, which is often a grill-it-yourself dish in Japan.
Still, Tamura thought that trying to popularize okonomiyaki in America was worth a try, since it falls into the comfort-food category, even if it doesn't fill most of our childhood memories. Making the dish work here was just a matter of the right approach and setting, he decided, so he came up with a new name and serving style: the Osaka burger, okonomiyaki in sandwich form. He tested the concept in the burger's namesake city before moving to the U.S. and conducting a nationwide search for a place that would embrace his creation, choosing Boulder because he saw its residents as both health-conscious and accepting of new cultures and foods.
At Osaka's, which held several days of test runs with a limited menu before opening to the public on November 7, traditional Japanese okonomiyaki has been miniaturized so that it can take the place of sandwich buns. So instead of the standard Frisbee-sized (and somewhat loose) pancake topped with all manner of ingredients and sauces, you get a compact, handheld (more or less; the paper bag helps) sandwich filled with a variety of proteins and vegetables. To meet Boulderites halfway, he also developed a version of his okonomiyaki made with kale instead of cabbage. Guests at Osaka's can choose from seven original (with cabbage) and five kale burgers, with fillings that include teriyaki chicken, fried cod, sukiyaki beef and sliced pork, along with a variety of sauces in sweet, spicy and creamy flavors. A meatless version is available stuffed with marinated mushrooms, and the "American" comes loaded with bacon and a fried egg. Despite the name, these aren't burgers in the strict sense of the word, so there's no ground-beef patty among the options.
Now, about that other word: omotenashi. This is something you'll likely experience at Osaka's; it's the Japanese concept of hospitality that focuses on anticipating the needs of guests and offering genuine, heartfelt friendliness and warmth. Omotenashi isn't a word you'll need to remember, either, but it's something that Tamura hopes will set his restaurant apart. The extended soft opening earlier this month was designed to make sure the staff was well-trained and dedicated to welcoming customers into the restaurant the way they'd welcome family into their own homes.
Another aspect of Osaka's customer service relies on technology. Each table comes with a rectangular block that you might mistake for a miniature salt shaker but is actually a wireless device connected to wristbands worn by the staff. Turn the block so that a specific icon and word ("water," "service," "order," etc.) is on top, and servers will be instantly alerted to your request through their wristbands. If you're eating lunch by yourself, the device (called a Noodoe Swift) seems a little gimmicky, but it comes in handy when you're with a group eating and drinking dinner over a couple of hours.
The restaurant itself is sleek and modern, but traditional touches, like the outfits worn by servers and the tatami room in the back (where shoes are discouraged), remind guests that this is an authentic Japanese transplant and not an imitation. Comfortable seating, warm lighting and a subdued color scheme invite long stays, even if the burger side of the menu feels more like a fast-casual invention.
Osaka's is starting out slow to keep the focus on the unfamiliar okonomiyaki, but it will be adding menu items over the coming weeks. Slider-sized versions of the Osaka burger will soon be available in sets of three, and larger, more traditional okonomiyaki will be served in cast-iron skillets. Other menu sections include agemono (fried dishes) and yakimono (grilled dishes); if you want to supplement your Osaka burger, you can choose from rose-shaped shumai dumplings, grilled rice balls called yaki onigiri, and tidy boxes filled with layers of rice and lacquered eel labeled una jyu.
No, okonomiyaki and omotenashi aren't familiar words in Colorado, but they both represent things you can now experience firsthand. With repeat trips to Osaka's, you can expand your knowledge of Japanese language and culture one bite at a time.
Osaka's is located at 2460 Canyon Boulevard and is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday. Call 720-398-9115 for reservations, or visit osakasrestaurant.com for more information.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.