As the weather warms up and Chicago’s dining scene awakens from its winter hibernation, few places offer that perfect casual, yet novel dining experience like Gaijin. Serving Japanese street food ranging from okonomiyaki to croquettes, Chef Paul Virant expertly brings a taste of Japan’s famed streetside vendors to this eclectic joint in the heart of the West Loop.
The first thing you’ll likely notice at Gaijin is that it’s actually quite small — parallel rows of bar seating and a few booths make for an intimate atmosphere. With Japanese character neon lights accenting the rustic, exposed brick walls and dim pendant lights, the simplistic décor truly puts the focus on the food.
As an added draw for the spell of warmer weather recently, Gaijin opens the entire front wall of the restaurant to make it like a patio, allowing for a comfortable breeze to brush past as you eat. Paired with the large skylight positioned directly above their bar, it’s hard not to savor the springtime weather with the seamless indoor-outdoor integration.
At its core, Gaijin specializes in okonomiyaki — a savory, wheat flour pancake with toppings such as seafood, cabbage, and meat — being the first okonomiyaki restaurant in Chicago. Despite the meat-heavy cuisine, Gaijin has no shortage of plant-based dishes and adaptations to make for a satisfying meal nonetheless. Given that Chef Virant isn’t Japanese himself, his study of traditional cooking techniques and embrace of street food classics lends itself aptly to the restaurant’s name: Gaijin, which means ‘outsider’ in Japanese.
A JAPANESE-INSPIRED JOURNEY
Despite not being the restaurant’s focus, appetizers at Gaijin are given no less attention to detail and composition. The Kombu Marinated Vegetables were a bold start to the meal — featuring green beans, radish, and celery, fermented in a kelp and sesame brine. The vegetables themselves are crisp, chilled, refreshing. Upon taking a bite, out oozes this bright, salty brine with a very subtle fishiness from the kombu and richness from the sesame oil. Given how addicting these pickles are, the only complaint would be how small the serving size is — you won’t be able to put these down.
The next dish worth a try is the Veggie Korokke — a curried rice and mushroom mixture that’s breaded, deep-fried, and served with tonkatsu sauce and pickled daikon. The presentation lacks a sense of composition, though the golden-brown crust on the croquettes and silky sheen of the tonkatsu sauce are quite visually appealing. The filling of the croquette is umami-rich and creamy, the melt-in-your-mouth texture offering a contrast to that crunchy exterior. Paired with the refreshing daikon, tomatoes, and a sweet, spiced tonkatsu sauce, this is finger food at its best.
Other appetizers that feature this same innovative flair with a shareable form factor include the Twice Cooked Garlic (braised garlic in a shoyu and rayu sauce served with rice crackers), Vegetable Yakisoba (stir fried noodles with vegetables), and Bok Choy (blanched and topped with a sesame-soy vinaigrette and fried shallots).
Moving over to the entrées, you’ll find a variety of okonomiyaki styles from across Japan: namely Hiroshima, Osaka, and Negiyaki. Given that okonomiyaki batter typically has dashi — a fish stock — Gaijin is able to modify the recipe to serve us a vegetarian version of their Osaka-style pancakes. That being said, if you aren’t plant-based, you’ll find a much wider variety of okonomiyaki styles that feature toppings ranging from octopus and smoked whitefish to cheese and kimchi.
Our plant-based adaptation of the Osaka-style Okonomyaki came out looking like a true work of art. The golden brown cabbage pancake was topped with a heaped pile of spinach, mushrooms, puffed rice, and criss-crossed drizzles of kewpie mayo and a soy glaze. The pancake itself is a savory, subtly sweet base featuring crisp cabbage for a satisfying bite. The spinach and mushroom offer little in terms of flavor but do ultimately add some more fullness.
The puffed rice arare constitutes a welcome crunch, while the shichimi togarashi spice blend offers this very mellow spice to brighten the dish. The large pieces of tofu on top don’t seem as seamlessly integrated into the dish (especially compared to the meat versions), though the dish’s confusing composition doesn’t detract from its overall umami-packed, uniquely salty flavor profile.
Ending the afternoon on a sweet note, no meal at Gaijin is complete without their Sesame Yuzu Kakigori — Japanese shaved ice with black sesame ice cream, yuzu syrup, strawberry compote, and a side of honey sesame brittle. Nestled under layers of powdery, refreshing shaved ice is the most decadent, delicate black sesame ice cream that’s rich without being overbearingly sweet. Paired with that strawberry compote for a burst of acidity and honey sesame brittle for a sweet crunch, Gaijin’s take on Kakigori is evidently genius.
Gaijin’s open-air ambience which incorporates outdoor elements into its upscale look into Japanese street food classics is more than just a novel concept. Between endless variations of okonomiyaki and an intimate ambiance, Gaijin is culinary innovation and cultural appreciation coexisting harmoniously.
Gaijin is located at 950 W Lake Street in Chicago. Learn more by calling 312-265-1348 or visiting gaijinchicago.com.
Aryav Bothra is a food critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl