Every few weeks we’ll open Netflix, see 17 new original series have dropped, and have no idea where to start - the sci-fi show that everyone’s already making memes of, the docuseries that will make us angry, or the critically-adored comedy without a single discernible joke. We felt the same way the first time we looked at Gaijin’s menu and saw about 1500 different ways to customize the savory Japanese pancakes (okonomiyaki). In other words, all the choices can be overwhelming. But as long as you stick with what this place does best - meaning keep your order simple - you’ll have a great meal.
Gaijin is a small, popular spot just off the Morgan stop in the West Loop, and you’ll be able to tell from your train window that’s it’s a very busy restaurant. They specialize in okonomiyaki, and there are two main styles to choose from: Osaka, where different toppings are mixed into the batter, and Hiroshima, where they’re layered with yakisoba noodles.
Both are tasty, but our favorite is the Osaka, which has the more interesting toppings - like beef and garlic, shrimp with creole butter, or octopus with honey. All of those things come together - sweet and savory, meat and vegetables - to make a pancake equivalent of a show with an ensemble so strong, not even a cast member leaving after the first season to start a film career can slow it down. There’s an option to add things like udon, eggs, rice, and cheese, but you don’t need to worry about those. It’s overkill to add an egg to the already-rich chicken confit - like buying a 4K TV just to watch Jeopardy! reruns.
Between the chefs griddling pancakes in the open kitchen, people milling around waiting for a seat, and a fleet of servers navigating a narrow dining room, the menu isn’t the only thing with a lot going on. But it also makes Gaijin the kind of spot where you can get loud over cocktails with friends while you split frisbee-sized pancakes and finish up with kakigori - giant shaved ice sundaes with sweetened condensed milk poured on top to reveal ice cream inside. And that sundae should be the most complicated part of your night - at least until you go home and watch that new German drama about alternate realities.
We like this piece of fish served with greens and a hot mustard sauce a lot. If you’re looking for something light to eat before the pancakes it’s a good option.
This is a starter that needs to be on the table. The noodles are perfectly cooked and the huge pieces of pork add a lot of flavor.
The shoyu-marinated ribs are sweet, and slightly chewy. Similar to the arctic char, we like these, but they’re not a must-order.
The chicken, beef, and octopus are the most essential versions, but you can’t go wrong with the other varieties. The only things you should skip are the add-ons, which tend to muddle things. These also come in flights of three mini pancakes if you’re completely undecided.
These are layered and have yakisoba noodles in them. If these were the only option we’d be perfectly happy, but we prefer eating the yakisoba on their own.
Other than the Osaka flights, this pancake is the smallest on the menu. It has the fewest ingredients, a scallion base instead of cabbage, and topped with pieces of thick bacon and a runny egg. Get this when you’re not planning on sharing.
These are mountains of shaved ice with an ice cream center, topped with things like caramelized apples and marshmallow fluff, and come with sweetened condensed milk to pour on top. The sesame yuzu with black sesame ice cream, yuzu syrup, and strawberry compote is our favorite combo.