Octopus balls shine on this menu.
These days, you aren’t so much what you eat as where you eat. To wit, restaurants employ carefully calibrated atmospherics to endow their customers with social cache: professional lighting, avant art, wood salvaged from decommissioned meth labs. Maru Global Takoyaki, a Wash Westie where bargain prices prohibit gratuitous extravagances like real plates and bathrooms that aren’t located in the restaurant’s bowels, takes a less subtle approach. Behold its motto: “Extraordinary food for extraordinary people.”
Maru flatters. Maru brags. It’s a good thing owners Ryo and Nicole Igarashi have the skills to back the swagger, little balls of wonder called takoyaki, the airy octopus-filled cakes indigenous to Ryo’s native Tokyo.
Since coming to the States in 1998, Ryo has cooked at Amada, Distrito and Raw. Nicole grew up in her family’s now-shuttered restaurant, Walt’s King of Crabs. The industry vets married in 2008 and opened Maru in February in a 10th Street space that has housed various delis and pizzerias and still looks that way. But inside the long, glass cold-case running the length of the tiled room, instead of Dietz & Watson black forest hams and Freda turkey breasts, you’ll find edamame, crunchy quinoa with umeboshi and basil and some of the best potato salad I’ve ever had.
Ryo does the picnic staple “Japanese style,” meaning the spuds are bound with creme fraiche, which doesn’t seem very Japanese at all but lends a long, luxurious tang that coats your tongue like the inside of a Cadbury Egg. He mashes the potatoes instead of leaving them in big hunks, creating a consistency that calls more for crudites than forks. Which is probably why the mixed-in diced raw cucumber, onion and carrot tasted so appropriate.
Hungrier patrons can proceed with an interesting-sounding Japanese curry burrito or a serviceably slick yakisoba deluxe with chicken, beef and shrimp. But make no mistake: The takoyaki are the main attractions.
Behind the counter, Ryo hunches over an imported cast-iron pan, pouring a loose crepe-like batter into each empty dimple, flipping the balls with a deft flick of the chopsticks. All nine variations are griddled to order and served by the half-dozen for $3.25 in the checked paper baskets that normally cradle corn dogs at the county fair.
Take-out and a Center City-and-south delivery network give you options to get your takoyaki on at home, but even with an ambiance that trends toward cardboard boxes, Japanese candy displays and a staffer’s Shuffle, you should definitely eat in. Otherwise you’ll miss the big pencil-shaving curls of dried bonito swaying like undersea anemones atop the fresh-off-the-griddle takoyaki. Give them a minute. Enjoy the dance. The ’yaki are too hot to eat right away anyway. I have burns on the roof of my mouth to prove it.
When you eventually dig in, each ball’s puffy shell will collapse like a warm, glazed Munchkin. They deflate around slightly batter-y centers hiding, in the case of the traditional takoyaki, tender mirin-and-sake-poached octopus, pickled ginger and scallions. It’s novel and unusual and delicious, enhanced by the unmistakable marine tang of green seaweed powder and bonito flakes. But I could have done with less of the intense tonkatsu sauce, like sweeter A1 and applied as heavily as a drag queen’s foundation.
The other ’yaki arrived similarly overdressed. Too much sake-spiked white miso on the shrimp balls. Too much silky cheddar bechamel on the cheesesteak version stuffed with tender sirloin and caramelized onions. Only the subtly sweet Tex-Mex-inspired cornbread ’yaki filled with chicken and jalapeños didn’t distract with its toppings: a shallow pool of grassy salsa verde, cotija flurries, crema and lots of chopped cilantro. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn I was eating nachos.
The cornbread balls would be my favorite had I not tried Igarashi’s sweet ’yaki. Studded with chocolate chips and rolled in dark cocoa powder like truffles, the balls rest against a bank of fresh whipped cream so magically thick I suspect it’s made with unicorn tears. In fact, it’s just good cream, real vanilla bean, some sugar and a conditioned forearm to whip it into shape. At $4, these choco takos deliver serious satisfaction for the cost of what’s hiding under your couch cushions. You might even call them extraordinary.
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255 S. 10th St. 267.273.0567.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm.
Atmosphere: What atmosphere?
Service: Kindly countermen.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014