Gaijin is a cool, hip-vibe, casual, and modern Chicago West Loop restaurant showcasing familiar but yet re-invented flavors of okonomiyaki, yakisoba, korokke, and kakigori. The word "Gaijin" means a foreigner in Japanese and it is often used to call expats living in Japan. Chef Paul Virant marries his Midwestern New American flare to the Japanese street food staples by drawing his time living in Japan with his family immersing in the food culture to his interest and specialty in pickles.
We love authentic food but we also love how chefs from different cultural background can elevate flavors of other cultures through techniques and their own style of cooking. This restaurant concept and execution is truly exceptional, converting a person like me who doesn't normally like okonomiyaki or yakisoba to a lover. Gus has always been a lover of these dishes but no matter where I tried them on different occasions even in Japan or when I make them at home following someone else's recipe, it never hits the spot like Gaijin. As a bonus, Chef Paul Virant publishes his Osaka-style okonomiyaki recipe for you to try at home. Check this recipe out!
Location & Transportation
The restaurant is located in the high-end food centric area call Chicago West Loop or Fulton Market on Lake St. Along with other tech company buildings and modern food halls, Gaijin fits fairly well with the target population that frequently roam around this neighborhood. The restaurant is right next to the Green Line Morgan Station so you can hop on the L and park elsewhere. Or you can find free parking further down west on Randolph St. where vacant commercial retail buildings gives you free parking space.
Menu & Dining
The menu has a short list of different styles of okonomiyaki, yakisoba, appetizers, and desserts. You'll pretty much have to decide what protein do you feel like as the base ingredients are standardized for okonomiyaki and yakisoba. The novelty is the various toppings and extra add-ons such as rice or sunny side egg which takes the texture and flavor to the next level. For current menu, check out this.
Gus and I really love Japanese pickles in general and was happy to see home pickles on the menu to explore. Chef Virant happens to be specialized in pickles so we got to try his spin on various Japanese pickles with unique blend of brine. Just when we couldn't get enough of his pickles, he sends out a dish of variety of other pickles for us to try. Thanks Chef!
A fully equipped bar with creative cocktail menu pairs well to refresh the rich and savory entrees. We saw some great choices of Japanese whisky and gin on the shelf as well. You can expect to find use of various Japanese made liquor and unique flavors in their extensive list of highballs or go for the traditional Japanese beverages like sake. The photo below is a gin base cocktail, Gaijin 75.
The restaurant has 4 kinds of seating option: outdoor covered patio, high-top bar tables, counter top open kitchen chef's table, and sit-down table with a okonomiyaki flattop grill. The dining room is narrow and you can see, hear, smell, and experience a true open kitchen. The decor is contemporary with white marble touches and woody elements to contrast as well as neon signs for pop of color.
Taste & Quality
The portions are decent and the price range for well executed dishes that we tried were justified and reasonable. We loved how some locally sourced ingredients are mentioned on the menu, promoting farm to table even though this restaurant is an international cuisine concept.
The Veggie Korokke was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside with a touch of curry flavor. The accompanied sauce had an American touch with tomato base with added seasoning and the daikon pickles were excellent that Gus and I were fighting for the last piece. We also ordered the Konbu Marinated Vegetables and it was crunchy, fresh, and refreshing. Almost makes you want to order a bowl of hot rice to enjoy the pickles properly.
Here is a close up of the pickle. Fresh and delightful!
The Shrimp Osaka Style Okonomiyaki was definitely a standout. We add-on the Crispy Rice which layers in a crispy and sticky texture to the pancake. The batter was thoroughly cooked and the tempura shrimp on top with the mayo, corn, and crunchy balls were a delicious accompaniment to the veggie base. We did noted that they use Otafuku Okonomi Sauce and it tasted just fine. I've tasted my fair share of okonomiyaki and many places or recipes tend to result in a dense pancake with a less than savory flavor and tries to rely on the okonomiyaki sauce and mayo to hide the poor execution or the bad batter. I think this version was lighter than expected and had great texture contrast which was perfect in my opinion.
The Pork Yakisoba had a mild sauce and seasoning which is perfect to enjoy the chewy texture of the noodle. The pork belly was also tender and flavorful and the vegetables were cooked well and gave a nice smooth mouthfeel with the noodles. Yakisoba was one of the dish that I'm not a fan of in general and would hesitate to order after experiencing ones in Japan that wasn't suited to my palate. However, Gaijin's version had the best noodle and sauce combination and I would gladly order again.
Various pickles on the house. A unique brine elevated the daikon just a tad bit more than the other pickles but we loved all 3 kinds.
For the desserts, we dined twice to try the ice cream and another to try the kakigori shaved ice. The ice cream featured summery flavors and we tried Pineapple Buttermilk Sherbet and Pandan Coconut (of course we got to try this as the owner of PandanMarket.com, haha!).
As if everything else wasn't already a highlight, throw in kakigori and you're like well every dish here is an all-star kind of place. We're hit with great flavors, creative dishes, and attention to detail over and over again. Kakigori is no exception and the shaved ice has the most refine ice texture that you cannot recreate at home unless you get the same commercial level shaved ice machine. The condiments are interesting but the star is really the flavors in the ice itself. The photo below is Sesame Yuzu.
Service & Operation
Service was attentive and the fact that we sat at the counter allowed us to interact with the Chefs. Before Chef Virant took over the okonomiyaki station, his sous chef was expertly educating us on the different styles and interacting with us. That really help us decide what we wanted to order and also visually appreciate how the food was made.
Chef Virant took over the okonomiyaki station as the restaurant got busy and pulled his team together for speedy execution of the dishes. Some of his staff were clearly still being trained and we watched him provide verbal guidance to his staff in a professional and calm manner. This was definitely a great behavior to observe from a chef because everyone deserves to be treated with dignity! What we love is watching him show discipline in managing and executing his operation like instructing his staff to keep the station clean and noting the techniques to ensure quality in each okonomiyaki being made.
We enjoyed watching him being hands on cooking the okonomiyaki and he also gave us a dish of the pickles on the house to try. Overall, this was a great Chef's Table experience and definitely adds to the value of the service and ambiance.
The best rating a restaurant can receive is when you ask the question if the customer wants to come back again. For us, yes and yes! Not only is this place priced well for the quality and value but also just plainly delicious.
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