Somewhere along North Florida Ave. lies an old-school, 1950s diner. With gently curved metallic walls and neon red striations, the classic spot is hard to miss. Go there expecting milkshakes and antiquity, however, and you’re in for a surprise.
Inside that once-diner lies Chanko Ichiban; an innovative new Japanese restaurant that’s making nostalgia a thing of the past. From its elevated Asian street fare to its comic-covered walls and iPad ordering system, the young spot is completely futuristic.
Under owners Steve and Olivia Sera, 4603 North Florida Ave. has officially been turned on its head. What was once “traditional American” is now “retro Americana”—and the food is kewpie mayo-covered fantastic.
Japanese comfort food in retro Tampa digs at Chanko
At Chanko, the name of the game is Okonomiyaki, AKA a popular pan-fried Japanese crepe dish topped with meat, veggies and savory sauces. Though the plate is usually associated with street vendors in the Osaka region, the Seras serve it Hiroshima style, which adds a hearty layer of fried noodles above the crepe base.
Essentially, Chanko’s Okonomiyaki is like a Mexican pizza, but layered higher, flavored smarter and—of course—Japanese.
Outside of that star dish, the restaurant offers other Japanese comfort classics such as Karaage fried chicken and curry-soaked Katsu cutlets. Perhaps as notable as the food itself, however, is the way that it’s served.
Dining in a “vending machine”
“I’ve always wanted a quick-service restaurant,” Steve, the concept’s head chef, said. “But with high quality food. In Japan, everything is so fast-paced. There is limited service—the register spits a ticket out and the chef hands you your order. But everything is still handmade; you get gourmet food.”
Striving to recreate that Japanese street energy, Steve designed Chanko Ichiban without front-of-house service. There are no waiters, hostesses or bartenders. Instead, visitors enter the restaurant and proceed directly to large-screened tablets where they can swipe through dish photos, select the ones they’d like to order, and complete their purchase electronically.
This system, which fits well with the spot’s futuristic theme, was summed up perfectly by a customer who referred to restaurant as a “vending machine.” And—until the Seras decide to franchise (because vending machine restaurants totally need to be a thing)—this converted little diner in Seminole Heights is going to continue to be a unique find.
What’s on the menu?
So, now that the technological, conceptual background has been set, let’s jump back to the food.
Because, you know, when you’re standing inside of that “vending machine,” you’re going to have to know what to button to press.
Here’s what we recommend.
Hiro Classic Okonomiyaki
There are three variations of Okonomiyaki on Chanko’s menu, all of which start with a crepe on the bottom. From there, the team layers on grilled yakisoba noodles, cabbage and bean sprouts with leeks, a fried egg, furikake seasoning, seaweed flakes, tempura crisps (which are a game changer), sticky sweet okonomi sauce and—arguably the best component—Kewpie mayo.
The “Hiro Classic” Okonomiyaki simply tops that perfect base with your choice of protein. We recommend the pork belly.
The second variation of Okonomiyaki, the “Miyagi” expands upon the classic by adding Japanese pickles, wasabi peas and Japanese mayo.
If you’re looking for a little extra kick, this is totally the oko for you.
The final oko on Chanko’s menu is Chef Steve’s favorite (and probably ours, too).
On paper, the rendition only adds grilled kimchi and mentaiko mayo. That mayo, however, is infused with fish roe; a caviar-like delicacy appreciated universally by true foodie palates. The addition of this ingredient, therefore, gives the condiment a umami, smoked salmon-reminiscent flavor that diffuses throughout the rest of the dish.
Put simply: this oko is just more sophisticated than the rest.
Outside of Okonomiyaki, the Karaage is the most popular item on Chanko’s menu. That doesn’t come as a surprise, though, because the dish is essentially Japanese fried chicken.
Order it over rice, noodles or by itself, but make sure to ask for it smothered in the restaurant’s signature “Chanko Sauce.”
Chicken Katsu Curry
Another crispy chicken dish, this hearty plate features a tender, hand-breaded cutlet covered in Japanese curry sauce. Flash-fried to order, the juicy cut of white meat is always amazingly crunchy—even while drowning under a layer of rich brown gravy.
And if you’re not a chicken fan? No problem. Chanko’s curry can be made with any protein (or vegetable) on their menu.
Okonomiyaki for all
Ready to indulge in some trendy Japanese comfort food? Chanko is open for dine-in and takeout seven days a week.
So whether you’re looking to step into the “vending machine” of the future, or snuggle up (with a good crepe) in a red booth of the past, we 10/10 recommend making this Asian-fusion hotspot the next hit on your list.