If you've never tasted takoyaki, a trip to Chamorro Village in Hagåtña is in order. Wind through the shops until you find Imari Food Stand in stall No. 126, just around the corner from the main entrance, where husband-and-wife duo Ron and Takeko Guerrero are busy at work turning out perfect, golden takoyaki by the dozens.
For those unfamiliar with the ubiquitous Japanese street food ("I've never heard of people who don't like takoyaki," says Takeko Guerrero, herself Japanese), takoyaki originated in Osaka and has since spread throughout the country, most often found in open-air markets and tiny street stalls. As more and more people have begun lining up for the fried treat in recent years, this bite-size snack made its way across the sea, popping up in island restaurants such as Imari.
Launching in 2015, Imari moved into its own permanent stall at Chamorro Village just months ago, proof that takoyaki is catching on here, too – and fast. On Wednesday nights, Ron Guerrero says, they get so busy that they open two locations within the market: one specializing in takoyaki and the other dishing out bowls of fresh poke. On a typical Wednesday, Imari can sell as many as 120 servings of takoyaki.
So what's all the fuss about? For starters, takoyaki is everything you want in street food: a basic egg-and-flour batter is filled with chunks of octopus or shrimp (or sometimes both), pickled ginger and green onion, poured into a half-sphere mold and rotated for several minutes until the outside is golden and crisp, while the center remains a bit gooey – Ron Guerrero says authentic takoyaki should taste as though it's almost uncooked in the middle. The tender spheres, which he likens to Japanese dumplings, are topped with Japanese mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce and bonito flakes.
And in true Guam style, they're served with a side of house-made dinanche, leveling off the savory and mildly sweet takoyaki with a perfect punch of spice.
Over the past several years, Imari has become known as much for its dinanche as it has for its takoyaki – the unabashed star of the show – to the point that the Guerreros have begun selling their dinanche by the jar. They've tempered the recipe a bit, Takeko says, as some customers said the spice overpowered their dishes. But for those who still want five-alarm heat, they're always happy to add more pepper.
Guerreros take the plunge
Neither of the Guerreros had restaurant experience before opening the food stand, but Ron had long toyed with the idea of opening his own place, and eventually decided to take the plunge. Both Guerreros still work at other jobs while managing and cooking for Imari five days and one night a week.
"It was more like, 'Really, you want to open something?'" Ron Guerrero says. "We don't know anything about food! But when I used to travel to Japan ... every time, I'd see a lot of those street foods. I don't see a lot of those on Guam. The question in my mind was, 'Is it gonna work?' But I said, 'I think it's gonna work.'"
It seems his guess was right, as Imari has already attracted its own crowd of regulars.
For the uninitiated, "fried octopus balls" does sound a bit intimidating (or is that just me?). In reality, it's the perfect street food, with a bite-size delivery that's a bit daring, packed with flavors that are at once new and familiar.
But in the end, it's (lightly) fried dough, and that alone makes it worth a try, right?
Ron Guerrero says some of their success is in fact owed to a more adventurous shift in food culture.
'People want to try everything'
"(There's) always something new to try. I think nowadays food has just expanded where people want to try everything, as much as you can," he says. "I think sometimes you get scared trying it, but when you try it you're like, 'Wow, this is awesome.'"
He adds, "I see people craving it every week now."
Imari has only just begun, but the Guerreros already offer catering, will soon sell takoyaki at select Foody's locations and hope someday to open a small dine-in restaurant.
"A good four-, five-seater," Ron Guerrero says. "Just chill and eat and go."
Ron says, however, they're happy with how far they've come already.
"It's a challenge and I think it's a very huge challenge because food is everywhere," Ron says of opening Imari. "'I wonder if they're gonna come to our shop and eat?' ... 'Do you think they'll go somewhere else?'"
But their hard work and tasty takoyaki are paying off.
"We've got a good handful of clientele ... coming here now, with slowly but surely repeaters ... (that's) what makes me so happy – them coming back every time," he says.