Back when she was still a student at Central Missouri State University, Yokahama-born Erika Koike decided to open her own version of an izakaya, which she calls a Japanese tavern — "a place where people stop in for a drink and a little bite of something." Now that she's the owner, manager and designer of the tiny One Bite, she has discovered that things in the United States are a bit different. "When I first opened, I did have smaller portions, but Americans really prefer to eat more."
"That's why Americans are so fat, honey," I told her as I reached for another pan-fried dumpling from the half-dozen plump beauties in front of me. Over several visits to One Bite, I took hundreds of bites of many delicious things. In fact, I dare anyone to eat just one of anything there. Despite its location in one of those indistinguishable Johnson County strip malls (if you get lost, the landmark is the Sam's Club), One Bite is a stylish little room.
It's a narrow space with just five roomy booths and a long counter with 10 tall stools; behind the counter is a stainless-steel open kitchen and grill area. The floor is lacquered concrete, and the back wall is mirrored to make the skinny room look bigger than it is. Koike and her server Vickie (a pal from her CMSU days) scurry around taking orders, whisking away empty plates, pouring wine and sake and mixing cocktails behind the pint-sized bar. Among several signature cocktails there is a Spring U-la-la Martini made with pear sake, spiced rum and fresh fruit.
My friend Bob was more interested in the Ramune soda pop. Each oddly shaped bottle is sealed with a marble, so after it's opened, the marble falls into the bottle neck and rattles around as you sip the soda. Bob loved the concept (Koike tells me kids do, too) but said it tasted just like any fruity American carbonated drink.
Bob and I were dining with Linda, who has traveled through most of Asia. A midtown girl, Linda had rolled her eyes at the idea of driving out to 133rd Street and Antioch, but the novel concept of One Bite intrigued her. "A Japanese tapas bar?" she said and laughed. "You're kidding, right?"
She and Bob were crazy about this izakaya from the very first gyoza — otherwise known as a pan-fried dumpling filled with pork, beef or chicken. (There's also the Chi-zu version, which the menu describes as a cheese dumpling.) "I should tell you that it has pork in it," Vickie confessed. "Is that all right?" It was with me, but I'm not keeping kosher.
For starters, we shared other not-so-little bites: pillowy cubes of firm tofu fried to a light, crunchy, golden brown, and fat green mussels baked with a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce. (We later discovered that this sauce accompanies many of One Bite's dishes.) To our amazement, tofu-hating Bob ate several fried squares of that gorogoro. And he couldn't stop raving about the succulent mussels.
We also shared One Bite's signature dish, okonomi-yaki, ordering it as an appetizer instead of an entrée. Koike calls the yaki a "Japanese pizza," but it's more like a fried flapjack made from a light batter, with shredded cabbage and various other ingredients, all topped with a malty Worcestershire-style sauce and more of that creamy mayo concoction. I wished I'd ordered a yaki strictly for myself after we also shared the "Mix Special" combination of vegetables, meat and seafood.