On a recent Wednesday night at Temescal Brewing, a little girl swiftly ran past me to a group of children drawing at a table. Throughout the night, the personable five-year-old continued to run around the space, eager to talk to the customers in the brewery. Sayaka was there because her parents, Satoshi and Sachi Kamimae, were working. The Kamimaes are the couple behind Okkon, an okonomiyaki pop-up shop, from Oakland.
Okonomiyaki translates to “cooked how you like it” in Japanese. As its name suggests, this savory pancake-like dish can be prepared with different ingredient combinations and toppings. The core ingredients consist of grated nagaimo (mountain yam), eggs, flour, cabbage and meat cooked on a teppan (flat iron) grill. There are two distinct styles: Hiroshima style layers the ingredients one by one on the grill and tops them off with noodles; while Osaka style mixes everything together into the batter.
Born in Hiroshima and raised in Osaka, Satoshi had the privilege of regularly eating both styles of okonomiyaki. Although there is no one “right way” of making it, he says he preferred his mother’s okonomiyaki to all others because he could taste the care she put into cooking it. As a stay-at-home-mom, she prepared all the family’s meals, and Satoshi says from her, he learned the importance of making meals from scratch. This deeply ingrained respect for quality, homemade food led him to start Okkon.
Satoshi moved to California from Hiroshima in his mid-20s. In Los Angeles, he worked at a ramen shop before moving the Bay Area, where he was drawn by the San Francisco music scene. He first worked as a line cook at a sushi restaurant but continued to jump around restaurants in the city for years. At one of those jobs, a catering company, he met Sachi, another Japanese ex-pat, who worked in the same building.
In 2015, when Sayaka just turned one, Satoshi and Sachi both quit their jobs to start Okkon. Satoshi had developed a recipe for Osaka-style okonomiyaki that spoke to his mother’s insistence on using quality ingredients, with everything made from scratch. Satoshi’s recipe uses organic flour and produce sourced from the North Berkeley farmers market.
Okkon’s first pop-up was in North Oakland, at the now-closed Corner Market on Telegraph Avenue at 60th Street. It was hard in the beginning. They struggled to sell, but slowly Okkon gained an audience. Customers started to recommend other locations for them around the Bay Area, which helped broaden their fan base.
Sachi would carry Sayaka on her back as she took and delivered orders to customers. She stopped carrying her when she was three-years-old.
“She was too heavy,” said Sachi, “Now, we just let her run around the space.”
The Kamimaes have a simple pop-up arrangement made up of two tables, two large coolers and a portable teppan grill. Satoshi makes the okonomiyaki, while Sachi takes orders and brings food to customers. With each savory pancake made to order, diners should expect their food to arrive in about 20 minutes.
The buta tama is Okkon’s basic okonomiyaki made with a topping of crispy pork belly ($11). For an extra $2, add-ins like mochi, wild shrimp or mushrooms, or a topping of mentaiko roe can be added. I chose mochi.
Watching Satoshi prepare the dish is almost like witnessing a carefully choreographed dance with very small movements. He moves quickly, deftly and with purpose.
The finished pancake is cut it into bite-size pieces and placed in a bamboo boat tray. Satoshi uses a paintbrush to apply a homemade sweet-savory brown glaze, then drizzles on a homemade avocado oil mayonnaise. The final touches are a dusting of seaweed and bonito flakes. Satoshi adds a small side of homemade pickled ginger to each order before passing the tray to Sachi, who then personally delivers the food.
Okkon’s okonomiyaki has a satisfyingly crispy exterior. Although fried, it’s neither greasy nor heavy. Its interior is moist, with the shredded cabbage filling cooked to just the right texture — soft, but not mushy or starchy. The addition of mochi adds a pleasing chew, and the homemade mayo and ginger amply the savoriness of the dish.
Sweet and tangy like a barbecue sauce, the brown sauce complements the crispy pork belly well. Satoshi spends two days making it, using three different broths (kelp, fish and mushroom) and a combination of vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, daikon, cabbage, celery, jicama and sauteed onions) and spices. Depending on the season, he also includes fruit. This season, he added pineapple, mango, apples and oranges to the sauce. After boiling and blending the mixture, it’s cooked again and then aged, for one-and-a-half weeks in the summer, two weeks in winter. The sauce can be a bit heavy for some tastes, but diners can ask for less upon ordering.
Okkon’s specialty is okonomiyaki, but there are a couple of other items on the menu. The pan-fried gyoza are so neatly folded, they almost look like origami. The dumplings are filled with pork, napa cabbage and Tokyo negi (green onion). An order is $7 for five pieces.
The negiyaki is similar to okonomiyaki, but it’s made with egg, pork belly and green onion, without flour or cabbage. Unfortunately, Okkon was sold out of this dish by the time I ordered.
Okkon pops up at various locations in the East Bay and San Francisco. For now, the couple does about three events a week plus private catering gigs. Satoshi stresses the importance of work-life balance and maintaining the quality of his food. He has worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade and doesn’t like how chefs can easily get burned out from working 12-14 hour shifts. He is a firm believer that this burn-out mentality directly affects the quality of the food.
“I have worked in so many [Japanese restaurants] and the quality of the food is bad [as a result of burn out],” he said.
Satoshi doesn’t see Okkon opening a brick and mortar in the near future. The cost and lifestyle of owning a restaurant don’t appeal to him and he prefers to focus on creating quality Japanese food.
Satoshi’s dedication to putting forth the best version of the dish has paid off. Recently, food critic Soleil Ho included Okkon on San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list for 2019.
As service drew to a close, Sayaka came back to her parents’ side. Sachi mentioned her daughter loves talking to customers, and it’s helped her learn how to speak English. Sayaka turned to me and asked, “What do you want me to draw for you?” I asked her to draw me some of my favorite foods and she did it with such ease.
Okkon pops up around the Bay Area. Its next East Bay appearance will be 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., July 27, at Soba Ichi, 2311 Magnolia (between West Grand and 24th), Oakland. Weekly East Bay pop-ups are from 5:30-8:30 p.m., Wednesday at Temescal Brewing, 4115 Telegraph Ave. (near 42nd), Oakland; and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday at Red Bay Coffee, 3098 E. 10th St. (near Derby), Oakland. Cash only.