One of Dallas' most adored pop-ups to emerge during the pandemic is taking that next step: Okaeri Cafe, which specializes in authentic Japanese food, is opening a permanent location in Richardson, on Terrace Drive, near the DFW Chinatown center off Greenville Avenue.
According to co-owner Gene Tran, who founded Okaeri with college friend Michelle Pepping, they're aiming to open in the fall.
The duo debuted Okaeri in 2020, building a loyal following via word of mouth. In pop-up fashion, they would post their menu online and accept orders, then create a window for pickups; in pop-up fashion, they sold out like crazy — especially their bento boxes, with Japanese curry and mounds of rice molded into adorable little bear-shapes, with pieces of seaweed added for ears, eyes, and nose.
But they've also helped introduce authentic Japanese dishes such as okonomiyaki pancakes, made with shredded cabbage, scallions, and meat or seafood; and omurice, a trendy and comforting fusion dish with a soft omelet draped over a dome of fried rice.
You could name pretty much any cutting-edge Japanese dish that surfaced during the pandemic, and Okaeri has probably made it: from "hotto doggu" — hot dogs covered with meal-size toppings such as noodles or shaved beef — to "onigirazu," like a cross between sushi and a sandwich, layering rice with fillings such as Spam and egg or chicken katzu, fried chicken in a crunchy panko crust.
Their amazing degree of authenticity is helped by the fact that Tran lived in Japan for a few years and saw these foods first-hand.
"I was inspired to move there after my best friend went to college in Japan," Tran says. "I lived there for a few years, I loved it. When I came back, I thought, 'Why not bring a little taste of Japan here?'"
He and Pepping, who owns Cajun restaurant Tasty Tails in Richardson, worked on the Okaeri Cafe concept for two years, with the goal of having it be a brick and mortar place.
The cafe will incorporate not only the Japanese items for which they've become known, but also an entire coffee program that fulfills Pepping's longtime desire to have her own coffee shop.
"As a pop-up, it's hard to do beverages, and the cafe will give us a place to do coffee as well as high-quality Japanese teas," Tran says.
The pandemic could have been a defeating thing, but they turned it around in their favor, embracing the temporary pop-up model as an opportunity to workshop their concept and rotate in new dishes to see what the market liked — a pandemic legacy and practice they'll continue, even once they're in their permanent space.