There’s more to Japanese food than sushi and steak, not that you’d know from the menus of most local Japanese restaurants. There has to be, right? Sushi’s not great breakfast food, for example.
Now there’s edible proof in Pittsburgh, at last. Teppanyaki Kyoto, a small, new restaurant in Highland Park’s subtly expanding restaurant row, barely has a visible sign in English out front.
Owner Kevin Chen is originally from Taiwan, and worked in Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. When he decided to open his own place, he wanted to do something different from the tried-and-true Chinese and Japanese restaurants in Pittsburgh.
“I wanted to have a restaurant, but there’s enough Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I made sushi before, but I feel like it doesn’t have anything different (to offer), and it’s difficult to get the fish. I wanted to make different Japanese food. My wife is Japanese. I traveled to Japan and tried to find the food that I liked, that I could bring back.”
He worked and ate in Kyoto and Tokyo for about nine months, gradually collecting dishes that would work here, and some that sparked ideas of his own. Hearty, filling dishes like okonomiyaki and teppanyaki became the focus.
Teppanyaki is simply a style of food cooked on a teppan, a type of iron griddle. Okonomiyaki is basically a pancake made with egg and cabbage, topped with various meats and/or seafood, and a spicy mayonnaise. Simple, savory, filling, yet quite different.
Teppanyaki Kyoto offers a long, slim sliver of a dining room, with a counter, grill and open kitchen along one side — sort of like a Japanese diner.
The relentless tidiness and uncluttered minimalism that most Japanese-American restaurants shoot for is ably replicated here: Lots of wood, some bamboo stalks at the entrance, a table and pillows for dining on the floor in the Japanese fashion in the back. The back rooms went unused on a recent day, even as the rather-limited seating in front filled up fast.
Service is fast and friendly, though okonomiyaki takes about 25 minutes or so to make, so don’t expect street-food speed.
Some of the strongest, most distinctive flavors arrive with the appetizers. The Bacon with Japanese Mochi ($6) wraps bacon around a soft, sticky mochi rice cake, topped with shredded nori (seaweed). The bacon flavor is strong, even overwhelming, and the chewy nature of mochi keeps its flavor going in your mouth for quite awhile. Although bacon is going into everything these days (candy bars, ice cream), this combo works.
“I opened a Japanese restaurant in America,” Chen says. “This is Japanese and American style together — American bacon with Japanese mochi, with soy sauce.”
The Okonomiyaki ($9) comes in several regional variations. For vegetarians, the Kyoto Mix is the way to go, with tofu, mochi and corn. The Tokyo Mix features shrimp, squid and pork on top. The Osaka Mix features shrimp, squid and beef. Bonito fish flakes, seaweed powder, and regular or hot mayo come standard on all variations, though you can opt out of some, or get it on the side.
The hot mayonnaise tends to be a little overpowering, applied liberally in a grid-like pattern to a just-grilled pancake. It’s also delicious, but you may want less, depending on your tolerance for spiciness.
Hiroshimayaki ($11) is a bit different, with yakisoba noodles layered in the pancake, any meat (add $1) and a fried egg on top, giving it a breakfast-for-dinner feel.
Most Americans associate mochi with ice cream, if they have any associations at all. Luckily, there is mochi ice cream ($2) on the menu — egg-size pods of ice cream surrounded by chewy rice cake. Go for the green tea instead of strawberry or mango, flavors that are easy to find elsewhere.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.