"Want skin as smooth as a baby's bottom?" say a couple of handmade signs at Yakitori Yakyudori. "Try our Kawasu!" They're not touting some new Japanese moisturizer, but actual chicken skin, boiled and shredded and served in a tangy, spicy salad dressed with a touch of soy, a hint of sweetness, a soupçon of hot pepper, and loads of finely minced scallions.
I happily chopsticked my way through a little bowl of it with new friends Barb and David, old Japan-hands who are regulars at this restaurant. "You'd never guess this was once part of a chicken," David said. "Yeah, it reminds me more of a Hong Kong jellyfish salad," I said. "Neutral taste, great soft texture, lively dressing. I admit I'm such a freak for Chinese food that when Japanese food tastes Cantonese, I love it even better."
I've only been to one yakitori before this, up in San Francisco, and it left me longing for more, so I was thrilled to be led to a local version. If you love sushi and sashimi, and you eat land-based creatures, you'll probably enjoy yakitori. The concept is similar -- many little bites, each one tasting different. A Japanese take on satay, yakitori is a parade of grilled or deep-fried nibbles on bamboo skewers -- meats, poultry, veggies, and the occasional fish -- adding up to an endlessly engaging meal. Each is a miniature of culinary art, its central ingredient marinated, glazed, sauced, and/or garnished to enhance its own specific nature. (Ideally, these delicacies may even produce satori, a smack-on-the-head blissful revelation of the cosmic harmony of the everyday.) But these tidbits haven't developed the faint cloak of formality that surrounds sushi -- they're sidewalk eats that evolved into bar snacks but never lost their street cred.
Most yakitori arrive as two small bamboo skewers that have done a short stretch on an iron grill imported from Japan, traditionally stoked with very hot (500 degrees Fahrenheit) Japanese charcoal. Although tori means "bird" (yaki is "grill"), the term now embraces the length of the food chain from veggies to quadrupeds. (Yakitori differ from teppan yaki in that teppan means "grilled at the table," Benihana-style.)
Every region has its own style of yakitori. The yakitori restaurant that knocked me out in downtown Frisco (called Hana Zen) was a glitzy, shiny branch of a Tokyo chain that had been bought out by its local staff, featuring an haute cuisine version of the genre. Yakyudori is the first overseas branch of another restaurant in the smaller city of Nagoya, where the style is simpler and less elegant than in Tokyo but still full of delights.
Yakitori Yakyudori is small, about 26 seats and a small bar in front of the smoky open kitchen, for singles or those awaiting takeout orders. The room is brightly lighted, with banquette seating along one wall and reasonably roomy unclothed tables. On the wall behind the banquettes are posted two lists of favorites -- the American and the Japanese "top ten dishes." It pays to eyeball both while you're working up your order -- there are treats you might overlook on the long, rather complicated menu. Number One under Japanese faves is Kawasu. Top of the American list is beef. Both made my "pick hits" list.
The night we ate there, about 70 percent of the diners were Japanese or Nisei, ranging from teenagers in love to "girls' night outers" to a multigenerational Japanese family -- plus a few mixed-ethnicity groups and a scattering of neighborhood gaijin (white "foreigners"). As the night went on, the room filled up and the noise level increased.
Our bouncy Nisei server was charming but too busy with a full house of customers to answer many questions (and the room was too noisy for detailed communication anyway). With our first courses, she brought a divided tray with two all-purpose dips: a dark-brown barbecue sauce that tasted similar to Chinese Hoisin sauce, and a scarlet colloid, visually resembling ketchup, that turned out to be pure hot chile paste. I'd never thought of Japanese cuisine as peppery, assuming those "spicy" rolls were an American adaptation. Seems I was wrong. After tasting the paste, David explained, "It's not meant to be eaten on its own but to be mixed with other sauces."
The reason that beef is tops on the American favorites (aside from our national love of cooked cattle) is because it's a great subject for yakitori treatment. Thin-sliced, tender, savory, it sported a delicious teriyaki-like marinade. We chose a version with "radish" (meaning topped with a frizz of raw shredded daikon). As Barb and I tried to slick it off the skewers with chopsticks, the daikon frizz fell off, of course. No big loss. The beef was fine on its own.
Thin, tender pork slices rolled around chopped shiso (a Japanese herb, called perilla in English -- if that helps) benefited greatly from the minty flavor at the center. Ground-chicken "meatballs" molded into sausage shapes around their skewers were also rewarding, thanks to a moist, well-seasoned glaze with a touch of sweetness.
Organ meats are prized in yakitori -- one of the joys of the genre is the chance to taste them transformed beyond recognition. Chicken hearts (hotsu) are a case in point. You'd never guess their offal origins by looks or flavor, and they were among the best tastes of the evening, rich and meaty. Beef tongue, on the other hand, was plain and bland.
Barb, David, and I bonded when we discovered we were all in love with fried tofu, the grown-up version of campfire-melted marshmallows. Yakyudori's version was flawless -- greaseless golden cubes, crisp outside and melting inside, scattered with bonito flakes.
The menu includes several seafoods. Octopus fritters were fun -- deep-fried globes of octopus meat dipped in a thick, light batter and a faintly sweet, slightly hot red sauce. They're tender but with a pleasantly chewy piece at each center. (When your teeth encounter it, there's your Zen moment of the evening.) They're served with more of the spicy dipping sauce and a pool of Japanese "Kewpie" mayo (familiar from spicy hand-rolls at sushi bars) to cool the fire. But another fish, shishamo (skewered capelin), appeared as two whole, small, heads-on skewered fish. It tasted like nothing at all -- well, maybe like a solid version of the mineral-laden tap water of Golden Hill. Here my "I'll try anything" ethos slapped me in the face.
There were several other disappointments. B&D (what rakish initials they have together!) had once enjoyed a nightly special of shiitake mushroom skewers. The regular version was unadorned and in no way special, tasting like rehydrated, unmarinated, dried mushrooms, the caps punctuated on the skewer by fibrous, rubbery stems. And when we ordered skewered quail eggs, we hoped they'd be semi-cooked with liquid centers, but they proved hard-boiled all through, served with loose salt. Deep-fried battered chicken katsu (cutlets) skewers came with a fine, thick red miso sauce but otherwise were nothing special -- and the batter abandoned the chicken as we pushed the pieces off the skewers. (Call it "deconstructed katsu.")
If you want dessert, there are ice creams (including green-tea flavored), and next door is a new frozen yogurt joint. Full, we passed.
Yakitori is, for most of us, a new food adventure. Here, it won't cost much unless you're a restaurant critic flavor-loading. Expect to spend about $20 apiece before drinks, tip, and tax, and even that sum might include a split of fizzy Nigori (unfiltered) "crazy milk" sake, a drier brand than the Takara (from Berkeley) that's commonly served at local sushi bars. Little wonder that Yakyudori is jammed almost every night from shortly after opening until the wee hours. (Isn't it cool that they stay open late? I can't think of a more deserving neighborhood.) So, with or without "crazy milk," go ahead, go crazy and indulge your secret craving for baby-smooth skin.