Located in the heart of downtown Iowa City in the space formerly occupied by Iron Hawk, Osaka Japanese Restaurant opened in fall of 2014 and has a large menu that seems to be fairly cut-and-dried as far as Japanese cuisine goes around here: lunchtime bento boxes, soups, salads, sashimi, nigiri, sushi rolls, katsu, dumplings, tempura, hibachi entrées and a children’s menu. Most entreés include soup, salad or rice. Dinner includes additional menu options with more-elaborate sushi rolls and appetizers.
The menu has some exciting starters, like the Bullet: jalapeño peppers stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese filling, then battered in tempura and deep fried. There is also a fish tartare—salmon, yellowtail or tuna—with avocado, mango and a tart yuzu sauce, as well as one of the most generous sashimi plates in town, with fish selected by the sushi chef.
The hand rolls at Osaka are colossal: your choice of fish (I usually go for spicy tuna), blended with sriracha mayonnaise and crunchy tempura flakes, then wrapped up cone-style in a sheet of nori. They are delicious, convenient and it is a challenge to stop eating at one. If Osaka’s hand rolls have anything going against them it’s that I’ve seen them sit at the sushi bar for several minutes before being served to me, which can be detrimental to their texture: I think it’s essential for hand rolls to be served promptly so that the crunchy nori wrapper doesn’t soften from the steaming rice contained within.
Osaka offers delivery service, which I have used and found to be pretty quick. I’d recommend calling in your order, but there is also an electronic ordering system on their website. Also, one server advised against ordering most sushi for delivery, because it can become soggy and unappetizing during transit.
When ordering takeout, opt for yaki soba or udon noodles, which are stir-fried and sauced to perfection, with meat or vegetables of your choosing. Try the eel yaki udon, a thicker-cut wheat noodle served with marinated eel and a side of miso soup.
The kitchen prepares an appetizer of tasty little pork dumplings that can come steamed, pan-fried or deep-fried. Another delicious appetizer is the agedashi tofu—cubes of fried tofu served with a salty dipping sauce.
If you opt to dine in, there are a few styles of beer, wine and sake, as well as fountain drinks, tea and juice. The owner Yuki Yu, who also owns Szechuan House, will check in on you periodically and quietly remove your empty plates as needed.
The dining room contains some larger tables but mostly booths; there’s also a back room that’s usually vacant. One of the restaurant’s walls still features a rendering of a golden pig with wings that was left by Iron Hawk when they closed last summer. It’s one of the few decorations, aside from a couple of paper lanterns and geisha figurines adorning the sushi bar.
I’m confused as to why Osaka is often empty; even on Friday nights, I’ve only seen three or four tables seated with customers. Perhaps it is because there are more sushi restaurants downtown than there is demand for, or perhaps it’s because the space is so big. But Osaka Japanese Restaurant has satisfied my sushi cravings time and again.
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This article was originally published in Little Village issue 171