By the fourth or fifth stuttery interruption during our phone conversation, I stopped to ask Mami’s chef and co-owner Austin Miller: “Where exactly are you now?” I figured he was talking to me from some heavily bricked-in section of his new Fore Street 30-seater’s basement, a room shunned by shy electromagnetic waves.

I was wrong.

“I’m actually cooking pancakes in the truck,” he laughed. “Okonomiyaki.”

Suddenly the drops in service made more sense. But I was more interested in what he was preparing. At Mami a few weeks prior, I had eaten one of Miller’s pork belly okonomiyaki ($12), and it was one of the evening’s highlights. To make it, Miller grills an egg-and-shredded cabbage mixture until it is brown around the edges, criss-crosses the surface with perpendicular drizzles of Kewpie mayonnaise and sweet soy-based sauce, then tops with atom-thin bonito flakes that flutter like butterfly wings as steam wafts up from the pancake.

It’s a popular Japanese casual dish, but one not yet well-known in the United States. Still, it hasn’t been hard for Miller and his fiancée, Hana Tamaki, Mami’s general manager, to convince Portlanders to try it – first on the food truck they opened in 2015, and then this April, in their shabby/chic restaurant. “Even though it’s not really a pancake, it’s crisp and soft and a little battery. Not like anything you’ve had before, but people like pancakes,” he explained.

It remains a staple of the tiny four- or five-item food truck menu, as well as the gravitational center of the menu on Fore Street, where with a permanent kitchen and storage, Mami is able to triple its offerings. It’s one of the things Miller likes best about having a brick-and-mortar location. “The truck is great, and nothing beats making okonomikayi in the middle of a field for a wedding reception. But it’s not ideal for cooking a lot of different things, or for experimenting,” he said. “I like the restaurant a lot more. There’s so much more space, and you can have six people in the kitchen, not just me and maybe Hana cooking. It’s awesome.”

Extra room also means opportunity to do dishes that require lengthy, complicated advance preparation, like the lobster nikuman with dill flowers ($12). Mami’s twist on a Maine lobster roll is served in a yeasty, house-made steamed bun and topped with pinheads of sparkling orange tobiko caviar that coax a saline minerality from the garlic mayonnaise-dressed lobster meat.

Miller and his team also bake their own stark, black squid-ink brioche buns for the Big Mami burger ($10). On each, they layer lettuce, pickles, Kewpie mayonnaise and a beef patty flavored with peppery togarashi spice blend, curry powder and pulverized nori. On a recent visit, my dinner guests and I found the patty a little overcooked, but with a remarkable balance of sweet, sour and umami.

If it’s umami you’re after, the best places to find it are in the crusty, golden brown takoyaki ($7), balls of crepe-like batter that hold a single morsel of octopus meat inside, or the spectacular yaki onigiri ($4): chubby, triangular parcels of sticky sushi rice, glazed with soy and miso and seared dark, crunchy brown on a teppanyaki grill. Mami frequently fills its onigiri with vegetable concoctions, like an Italian-esque combination of stewed tomato – generating yet more backhanded slaps of umami – and slivered garlic.

Karaage – Japanese-style fried chicken, left – and okonomiyaki – a savory pancake with pork belly, cabbage, seasonal vegetables, katsuobushi, aonori, benishoga and okonomi sauce.

“That’s the beauty of what we can do here in Maine. We’re really able to play with things that are in season,” Miller explained. “We’re not ashamed to have things from the farmers market if they’re delicious, even if they’re not traditional. Japanese cooking easily adapts to all of it.”

Still, Mami’s menu rarely veers far from Japanese izakaya and street food. Sure, there’s a Hawaiian/Japanese salmon poke don ($14), with bright, tart pickled onions and a creamy fermented chili sauce. But nearly everything else is at least based on a Japanese casual dining classic, like delightful shiitake skewers ($3) painted with a dense, long-simmering tare sauce made from mushroom stems, brown sugar, negi (Japanese scallions) and mirin. Or outstanding karaage ($7), chicken marinated for 24 hours in sake, ginger and soy, then battered in potato starch and fried so crisp that, as you eat, all you can hear is crunching.

Remarkably, Mami hits its mark nearly every time. On a recent visit, only forgettable blistered shishito peppers ($6), soggy from too much citrus-soy dressing, and underseasoned blanched spinach gomae ($6) disappointed.

I didn’t expect much of the yakisoba ($10), frankly. I know it as the kind of louche, greasy dish best sought out after a particularly intense bender. But Miller’s version was almost delicate, with North Spore mushrooms and loads of carrot and bok choi alongside grilled buckwheat noodles and plenty of citrus-pickled ginger. Not exactly health food, but a fresher, more vibrant version of this dish than you’ll usually find elsewhere.

Pair it with the right beverage from Mami’s two dozen drink options, mostly beers and ciders – some local and some from Japan – and it feels almost virtuous. For sheer frothy lightness, it’s hard to top the Hitachino White Ale ($7), a dry, medium-bodied Witbier that tastes like fruit and rose petals.

And if that doesn’t quite suit your taste, you can always order something different, as long as you get up and return to the counter to do so. At Mami, there is no table service in the traditional sense. Instead, you place your food and drink order at the front when you arrive, then carry your drinks to a table, where your food and utensils are later brought to you by one of the staff.

It’s a strange approach, stuck somewhere in the limbo between fast food and full service, a sort of fractional service model that seems perfectly suited to a quick-in, quick-out lunch crowd, but incomplete for dinnertime.

“At a ramen-ya in Japan, you order at a machine and someone brings you your food. That’s the whole interaction,” Miller explains. “For us, it’s also about the size of the space. We’re small, so table service could get clunky and awkward.”

But with partial service, a practical question looms: How do you tip? You don’t have a server, but if you spend an hour or more in the restaurant, it seems stingy to round your bill up a few dollars. “I tell people: Just do what you want. We’re not asking for a tip. We’re just here to give you food and beer, and if you like what we do, OK, tip a little,” Miller said, reassuring me that everyone in the restaurant is both paid “a little more than minimum wage” and eligible for a share of the weekly tips pooled from both the restaurant and the truck.

A fair solution, but one that reads like a vestige of a time when there was only the food truck. In a restaurant, the neither-nor service model, and to some extent, the nondescript furnishings, create an unstable, temporary feel, as if Miller and Tamaki haven’t gotten comfortable enough to put down roots quite yet. I know I’m not alone in hoping they settle in and stick around for a while.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME