Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Savory Japanese Pancake - Gaja Moc, the Okonomiyaki Specialist!

It's sometimes easy to take a restaurant for granted, especially those that you've been back to time and again over the years. These oft-visited eateries become so familiar and second nature that it's only when you haven't been back in a while (or when you take friends who've never been there before) that you start to realize just how much you enjoy that particular establishment. Gaja Moc, one of L.A.'s rare Okonomiyaki Specialists, is one such place.

Thinking back on the multiple visits to Gaja over the last 6 years (they've been in business for 7 years now), I feel lucky to have been introduced to an Okonomiyaki (and Monja) Specialist so long ago (and that I've been able to enjoy the fun cook-it-yourself atmosphere each time I've gone). :)

Okonomiyaki is essentially a savory "Japanese Pancake" or "Omelette"-type dish, where a base of Water, Flour, Kyabetsu (Cabbage) and Yamaimo (Yam) can be cooked with a variety of toppings, from Pork to Shrimp to near limitless ingredient ideas. The Japanese name literally means "what you like, cooked," and it's with this idea that near endless varieties of Okonomiyaki can be had.

Gaja sits along a quiet section of Lomita Boulevard, and every time I've visited Gaja, there's been this fun, positive vibe running throughout the restaurant as each table gathers around the center grill to attempt their version of Okonomiyaki. There's just something fun about cooking with friends and family and that's what Gaja is all about. And this particular visit was no different, as I found myself in the pleasant company of Noah and Mr. Meatball from Man Bites World during their epic Japan Day journey. :) It was an honor to hang out with two people completely driven by the quest for good food and drink (and earlier in the day I had the honor to meet even more of the Man Bites World crew).

There was a crowd gathering outside of Gaja when we arrived, and in the few minutes before Gaja opened, everyone was either staring at the cute Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Ball) scroll, or the wacky TV advertisement of this place :).

While waiting for our order, I'm reminded of one of the coolest things about Gaja (besides the food): Their selection of premium Japanese Beers, ranging from Hitachino to my favorite, Koshihikari Echigo. :)

Every table is fitted with a central teppan grill, ready to accept whatever gets thrown at it. :) Note that you can also request the kitchen staff to cook the Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancake) for you, but that's missing out on half the fun. (^_~) If you decide to cook the Okonomiyaki, a step-by-step instruction sheet will be provided by the server, and they will gladly hop in and help at any point along the way.

Gaja has expanded its menu over the years, and can be quite daunting for first-timers. In addition to the Okonomiyaki, they serve Monjayaki (more on this later), a whole menu of different *types* of Yakimeshi (Fried Rice), Yakisoba (Japanese style Chow Mein), Yaki Udon (Japanese style Fried Udon), Salads, Ippin Ryouri / Izakaya Small Dishes, Teppanyaki dishes, and a massive Parfait / Dessert section! :) But the key is to stick with their strengths and basics: the Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki. And in fun Japanese fashion, they have their "Requested Top 10" most popular flavors for Okonomiyaki, in case you weren't sure what to order. :)

On this visit, Noah and Mr. Meatball decide to start with a good basic variation (and the #1 most requested dish): Modan Mix (Modern Mix) Okonomiyaki, in the traditional Kansai style. The Modern Mix includes a huge pile of Shrimp, Squid, Pork Belly, Beef, and Yakisoba Noodles, along with the base batter.

We cook up the protein on one side of the grill, while we lay down the foundation layer of Okonomiyaki batter (Water, Flour, Kyabetsu (Cabbage) and Yamaimo (Yam)).

When the meats are mostly cooked through, move them onto the bottom layer of batter and then top it with the remaining batter to form a top layer.

Flip the entire Okonomiyaki over at this point (which reveals a crispy, delicious crust), and let the other "side" of the batter cook through. (My attempt tonight was one of the messiest versions I've made in the past 6 years of visits - forgive me! I blame the alcohol Noah and Mr. Meatball was feeding me :)

You finally top the Okonomiyaki with your favorite toppings such as Aonori (Green Laver), Katsuobushi (Bonito Fish Flakes), Okonomiyaki Sauce (imagine a sweeter version of Tonkatsu Sauce, or a thicker Worcestershire Sauce), Japanese Mayonnaise and Beni Shoga (Pickled Red Ginger) (which are all in clearly marked containers along the side of every table).

The crispiness of the nice sear on both sides of the Okonomiyaki provided a great backbone to the rest of the ingredients, with the beautiful mix of Seafood and Fatty Pork happily meshing together. In the end, both Noah and Mr. Meatball seemed to have enjoyed the Modan Mix Okonomiyaki and I left with a sigh of joy and relief. :)

Gaja offers a wide variety of flavors that can be mind-boggling at times. On my very first visit to Gaja 6 years ago, I had tried their Buta Okonomi (Pork Okonomiyaki), which includes extra slices of Pork, Egg, Negi (Green Onions), Beni Shoga (Red Ginger), along with the batter. It was very good, with a pure Pork focus complemented nicely by the Egg and Green Onions; a classic combination.

On another visit, their Mentai Mochi Chiizu (Spicy Cod Roe, Mochi and Cheese) was a fun variation on the more popular meat-focused versions, with the Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe) giving a great, oceanic note that permeated each bite with the gooey goodness of Mochi and Cheese melting with the Okonomiyaki batter. Very nice. :)

From there, Gaja offers up about ~40(!) different flavor combinations for the traditional Okonomiyaki, ranging from Natto (Fermented Soy Beans), to Unagi (Eel), to many other interesting combinations. :)

About one month after the Man Bites World Japan Day visit, my 'dachi Keizo from Go Ramen! was craving some Monja (or Monjayaki), so we headed out to Gaja to help satisfy the hunger. :) Monjayaki is a popular Tokyo variation of Okonomiyaki, but it's a far different animal from the traditional Okonomiyaki: Monja is much more liquid and gooey, and eaten with tiny little spatulas. :)

We began this visit with my favorite style of Okonomiyaki: Hiroshima Style, which involves layering the ingredients, and with a much larger end result. :)

We ordered the Hiroshima Style Seafood Mix Okonomiyaki, which included Pork, Scallops, Shrimp, Octopus and Squid, along with lots of Kyabetsu (Cabbage), Yakisoba Noodles, Negi (Green Onion), Tamago (Egg), Beni Shoga (Pickled Red Ginger), and Ninniku (Garlic).

Just a warning that making a Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki takes more steps and is more complicated to construct than the usual Okonomiyaki discussed earlier. And as before, the kitchen is more than happy to cook it for you, or you can get the staff to help out as you go along. :)

With Hiroshima Style, we cooked the Tamago (Egg), Yakisoba Noodles, and Protein in layers and stacked them up, resulting in a massive version (that should've been pressed down a little bit more in hindsight :).

It was delicious, with the extra bit of Egg, extra Cabbage and Noodles and the layering giving the creation a bit more texturing to the usual version (which I like as well :). Lightly sweet from the Okonomiyaki Sauce, but savory and tasting of the pureness of the ingredients themselves, it was a good mix of Seafood and Porky flavors balanced out by the Okonomiyaki batter.

The next dish was the one Keizo was waiting for: Monjayaki! :) We decided to try one of their new flavors: Tonkotsu Mochi Chiizu Monjayaki (Pork Bone Mochi Cheese flavor). With both of us being Ramen fans, we were hoping that the Tonkotsu flavor would be similar to a good Tonkotsu Broth found in Ramen.

When the bowl arrived, it was mainly Cheese and Mochi piled high on top of the Monja batter (which is more liquid and contains no Yamaimo (Yam) unlike the regular Okonomiyaki batter). We were both curious where the "Tonkotsu" flavor was coming from.

Keizo deftly cooked the Tokyo-style Monja and soon, the sought after end result appeared on the grill: A wonderful, gooey and delicious dish was spread across most of the grill. Top it with your favorite toppings (we chose just the Aonori (Green Laver) and Katsuobushi (Bonito Fish Shavings)) and scrape off bite-sized chunks of the liquidy Monjayaki with the tiny spatulas provided. :)

This particular flavor was slightly disappointing: Keizo and I both noted zero Tonkotsu flavor (it was really Cheese and Mochi with the batter), but otherwise, it was fun getting some Monja in L.A. :)

My friends and I are usually too enamored by the different Okonomiyaki so we rarely order Monjayaki, but my favorite flavors would have to be the Sutamina (Stamina) Monjayaki (with Ground Beef, Spicy Miso Sauce, Egg, Garlic), and Pork Kimchee Monjayaki. The Stamina is lightly spicy, with the savoriness of the Ground Beef mixing really nicely with the Miso, Garlic and Egg, merged into the gooey Monja batter. And for the Pork Kimchee Monjayaki, the Kimchee's tartness mixed with the slightly fatty, delicious Pork slices give the perfect textural contrast to the gooeyness of the Monja itself.

Service has been consistently fine for this relaxing little Japanese eatery. I've encountered no problems over the 6 years I've been visiting this restaurant. Okonomiyaki dishes range from $12.90 - $17.90. Monjayaki dishes range from $12.90 - $18.90. We usually average about ~$13 - $16 per person (including tax and tip), depending on how hungry we are.

Gaja Moc is another wonderful Specialist in L.A., focusing on the rare Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese Pancake) and Monjayaki dishes. With so many interesting variations and the ability to customize / add extra ingredients (an additional 28 extra ingredients!), it's easy to find something that you'd like at Gaja. With the communal, cook-it-yourself aspect, and with so many different offerings on the menu, Gaja easily fulfills the literal meaning of its specialization: "What you like, cooked." Recommended. :)

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Gaja Moc
2383 Lomita Blvd. #102
Lomita, CA 90717
Tel: (310) 534-0153

Hours: [Lunch] Sat, 11:45 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Tue - Thu, 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Kat said...

I have only been once but it was a very fun experience. The dessert is pretty good too. Of course Patisserie Chantilly next door is a great 2nd dessert too. O=9

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kat,

Glad you enjoyed your visit to Gaja. I've never saved enough room for their huge Japanese Parfaits; maybe one of these days... :)

And yes, Patisserie Chantilly is just one more incentive to visit Gaja. :)

Noah said...

Great review. I love this place.

tannaz said...

jealous!! once back when i was unemployed, some friends did a weekday excursion to gaja, only to discover that it was closed on mondays! we drowned our sorrows in ramen at shinsengumi, so it wasn't so bad after all, but i've been meaning to go back since!!

Michael said...

Really one of my favorite spots from the entirety of man bites world. You were so gracious to take charge of the pancake, so absolutely no need to apologize for your "poor" flip. Also, if it wasn't really clear, Noah and I both totally loved it. I can't wait to go back.

-Mr. Meatballs

Exile Kiss said...

@ Noah: I'm just glad you liked it. :) Next time we'll have to try attempting to cook some Yakisoba or Yaki-Udon full dishes. :)

@ Tannaz: Sorry to hear that they were closed when you went. :( It's a fun little place and definitely worth visiting once at least. :)

@ Michael: It was no problem at all. Let me know if and Noah want to go back again. (^_^)

Keizo said...

Yo EK! Sweet review as always. Thanks for the meal btw!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keizo,

Thanks. :) I'm glad you enjoyed the visit. Let me know the next time you're in the mood for Monjayaki! :)

ila said...

Mmmmm. I love okonomiyaki (naturally, it's in my Kansai blood :p). I also heart their mentai-mochi-cheese monja. PERFECT with ice cold beer!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Nice! :) So do you like their Monja more, or their Okonomiyaki? :)

sha said...

Hi EK,
nice review and I love your blog, and I want to be just like u... ^___^'
You have very great skill. When I went to Gaja, we destroyed the okonomiyaki D=!! Have you tried the curry one? It has a very nice faint curry flavor, and it's one of my favorites.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi sha,

Thanks so much for your kind words!

I've never tried the Curry flavor in all my visits. I'm going to have to try that one next time. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

WingChunBoyz said...

Gaja Moc I highly recommend, order the Spicy Mayo Takoyaki, it comes out hot and soft. The spicy mayo had a nice little kick to it. And order the modan(modern)mix, the wait is long depending on what day you go, but it's well worth the wait.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WingChunBoyz,

Glad you liked it as well. :) In all my visits, we never get around to ordering the Spicy Takoyaki. I'll have to try that next time. Thanks. :)

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