Sunday, May 18, 2008

Memories of Orient Express

In the fall of 1979 I quit my management job at Kentucky Fried Chicken and took a chance at a new life in Columbia, Missouri. After inspecting a dozen or so trashy, overpriced apartments near the MU campus I looked to west Columbia for a place to live. I ended up renting at Gatehouse Apartments on Broadway near Stadium which was far from campus but close to businesses I needed. This apartment complex was near the Biscayne Mall, a Kroger's grocery store and several restaurants, all within walking distance. My most favorite memory of the Gatehouse experience was a little restaurant just a few minutes away which still to this day excites my appetite.

The Orient Express was hidden by a gas station on the east side and and an old steak house on the west and it was behind another apartment complex north of the Crossroads shopping mall on Ash St. I believe I remember a frozen custard shop attached to the north end of the building but I am not sure. I discovered the restaurant while on a walk exploring my new surroundings and decided to give it a try. The seating area was small but very clean and the menu seemed to be more Japanese and Korean then Chinese. Their specialty was a dish called "Obi", which consisted of thin slices of beef cooked in an extremely flavorful black sauce served on top of rice. I believe I watched them cook the beef on a grill but that memory is vague. The flavor was unlike anything I have tasted in my life and even to this day, almost thirty years later, I have faint remembrances of that taste in the back of my mind. They also served a flavorful tossed salad that had pieces of mandarin oranges and I believe thin slivers of almonds mixed with a light dressing of what might have been sesame oil and a rice wine vinegar. It was very cool and cleansing to the palate and went with the Obi very well. On some days I celebrated with a cold bottle of Japanese Kirin beer but that was rare because money was tight. Going to the Orient Express was an expensive treat which happened only so often.

In less then a year I had to move because the management of Gatehouse wanted to raise my rent but since I had a lease they said I could leave early. I moved to central Columbia and only made it out to the Orient Express occasionally until one day the door of the restaurant was locked. It had closed and I felt like I had lost an old friend. It was many years later when I was looking for another apartment when I found out why the Orient Express closed. The elderly Jewish gentleman showing me the apartment owned properties all over Columbia and he shared some of his locations with me. When he said he owned some properties near Gatehouse I asked him if he remembered the Orient Express. He said he owned the building and that the owners were bought out by a company with a stipulation that they were never to reveal the recipe for their Obi dish. What a revelation, once again big business interferes with my taste buds. I have searched for some sign of an Orient Express and there are many listed on the Internet but nothing seems to fit with the Obi dish. It is one of the few old restaurants that I know other people say they miss, and all of them remember the Obi. I sometimes curse big business but I hope they gave the owners of the Orient Express a good sum of money because they deserved it. Some people have to go to India, use drugs or meditate to reach Nirvana. I reached that experience here in Columbia every time I ate a plate of Obi with a tossed salad and a cold bottle of Kirin beer.


phlogdo said...


What a concept.... so simple and so tasty. I lived in Gatehouse apts when Orient Express opened, and I ate an OBI whenever I could make it happen.

Funny, you said that you still remember that taste after all these years and haven't found anything to replicate it.

I totally agree. It's funny what powerful memories taste and smell can evoke. I really would like to know what it was that made them SO good!!!

I used to get a large OBI to go, and take it up the street to the Shelter Gardens, where I'd stake out a bench to enjoy the food and the scenery.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog while doing a search for Orient Express and Obi. If I remember correctly it was originally started by one of the econ profs at the University. I still remember Obi and the great salad.

Westonworld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Westonworld said...

I found your blog as well when I was trying to find out more about this favorite culinary memory of mine CoMo. We used to eat a ton of obi from Orient Express when I was a kid because it was cheap, fast, delicious, and exotic. (It was either this or gyros/souvlaki from G&D.) I was never able to find obi anywhere, but recently I found out what it is called in normal Japanese cuisine: gyudon, which should make it easier to find at Japanese restaurants. I just had a big bowl of it in Osaka at one of Japan's fast food chains called Yoshinoya, which it seems has some American franchises out in California. When I took a bite of the gyudon it was such a taste flashback. It was like I was back at the Orient Express. I found this recipe which replicates it pretty well: . You should be able to find dashi stock and pickled ginger at any Asian grocery, though schmancier grocery stores like Whole Foods would have it too. Or there's always Amazon.