I first saw Japanese takoyaki - a delectably ambrosial octopus dumpling that has graced the shops and street corners of Japan for centuries - on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Immediately I hopped to my computer and conducted a frantic search for takoyaki restaurants in Texas. There had to be some Japanese transplant living the American Dream somewhere in Texas peddling authentic foods of the homeland to American foodies. There just had to be.
Needless to say, I got nothing, not even a nibble. I should’ve known better. The extent of authentic Japanese cookery here is as far-reaching as a Philadelphia roll at happy hour on a store-bought tatami downtown.
Then one fateful afternoon, a friend called me up and suggested we visit a new food truck: Love Balls. Putting other possible connotations aside, this truck really holds true to the name. “We make balls, and we put love into them,” says owner Gabe Rothschild, 27.
They certainly do, with all entrees made right to order. The process is a meticulous and slow one, but it’s worth the approximate 10-20 minute wait. Each order of takoyaki comes with eight chewy chunks of octopus encased in a searing-hot ball of dough, seasoned to savory perfection and topped with a helpful heap of special Japanese mayo, powdered seaweed and bonito flakes.
“We were eating at a lot of food trailers and something was missing: Japanese street food,” says Rothschild. “And we thought takoyaki was accessible, quirky and fit into the Austin food scene. Nobody was doing it town; nobody was even doing it in Texas. And we figured a lot of people would be interested, curious about it. And it was a form we could play with.”
Each ball is crispy on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside, and it’s a shame that each bite only lasts a mere delectable five seconds. I would devour them faster if I could, but the fact that they come directly off a burning skillet doesn’t bode well for my gums. The textures and flavors meld together like a stew, and each bite feels like a piquant punch to the face.
“The first time I was in Japan, I was pretty enamored,” Rothschild said. “I have a personal love for traveling and eating while I was in Japan, and I wanted to bring back something I loved from a place I loved. We wanted to do takoyaki so that people don’t have to go to Japan or California to get it.”
Gabe and his wife Sao opened the renovated and funked-out school bus back in March of this year, and since then they’ve not only met a great degree of success, but they’ve also managed to inundate a community completely devoid of Asian eccentricity with a taste of the Japanese street. And they do all this tucked within a semi-circle of fellow food trucks in a cozy lot on East Sixth Street, where they’ve made plans to stay…indefinitely.
“I really love this place. There aren’t that many parks with this many trucks,” Gabe says. “And I would stand behind recommendations for all of these trucks to anyone. I like working around products I’m proud of. And there’s an awesome sense of family here. We all support each other, which is helpful when you have a small business that you put in hundreds of hours to create.”
The duo may expand at some point, whether that be adding another truck to take over the late-night bar scene or tacking on some more items to the scant (but I’d prefer to call it simple) menu. All keeping to the “ball” theme, of course.
“Eventually, we plan on offering different things,” Gabe says. “In order to be successful, we need to expand beyond the community that’s already had takoyaki, you know? We can’t be that half-Japanese-lived-in-Japan thing for long.”
And so, in the coming months, Love Balls hopes to see its menu of a limited takoyaki and garlic yaki-onigiri (or in layman’s terms, a garlic rice ball) flourish into a more global repertoire, encompassing fresh Italian mozzarella, Mediterranean-style olives and dessert balls. It suggests a break from Love Balls’ firm Japanese roots, but the Rothschilds assure that takoyaki will continue to take center stage.
“We want to stick with the authenticity, but there’s only so much you can do with takoyaki,” Gabe says. “As long as we keep takoyaki at the top of the menu. I’ll always recommend it even to people who are shy about octopus.”
I have been back to Love Balls too many times since that No Reservations episode. But honestly, there’s no such thing as “too many times” when takoyaki is this good.
- STEPHANIE KUO