Searching for America's Best Yakitori
"Both Kokekokko and Nanbankan in Los Angeles serve outstanding food, but for that perfect yakitori experience, I'll have to keep looking."
Several years ago I visited my friend Albert in Japan where, not surprisingly, I ate some of the best food of my life. I had sushi at 8 a.m. next to Tsukiji fish market, premium beef sukiyaki in Kyoto, and 90 minutes of all-you-can-eat-and-drink shabu shabu with a horde of new friends.
But the most memorable meal transpired near Albert's home in a Tokyo suburb at one of two yakitori joints that he and his neighborhood companions dubbed "Yak 1" and "Yak 2," having forgotten their real names long ago. Yakitori refers primarily to skewered iterations of chicken, as well as other food cubes—pork belly, green onions—impaled by wood or bamboo sticks, made hot by fire. A typical yakitori restaurant, particularly in the suburbs, caters mostly to businessmen who want to delay their return home just a little bit longer.
One evening, with some time to kill before heading to dinner, we walked down to Yak 1 (or was it 2?), appropriately situated opposite the commuter rail station. After a round of beers, I got my first taste of those addictive bites of breast and thigh meat, followed immediately by tsukune, a skewer of three soft chicken meatballs, doused in a thickened soy-based sauce—they melted in my mouth faster than I could chew them.
Since that trip, with tsukune always on my mind, I've searched high and low for authentic yakitori joints in the U.S., mostly to no avail. They should be simple little places, sheathed in wood paneling and coated in smoke resin built up from years of nightly grilling. They should limit their roster to the skewered essentials and charge no more than a dollar or two for each palliative lance of protein. Instead, we're mostly stuck with a new raft of upscale izakayas burdened by encyclopedia-sized menus.
I love Biwa in Portland, and New York City's Totto empire, but even their happy hour prices can seem exorbitant. Yakitori Taisho might be better in price, but the restaurant—situated in the East Village in Manhattan and overrun by college kids—scares away the after-work crowd (and myself most of the time). Still hoping for that true yakitori experience, this week I tried two "yaks" on a scouting trip to Los Angeles.
Kokekokko, located in the Little Tokyo section of downtown, has an authentically Japanese atmosphere, with a wooden bar that wraps around three sides of the grilling station and a few communal tables on the periphery. The grill master drinks a tall Asahi and turns the skewers that rest over a narrow trench of hot coals. With outstanding renditions of tebasaki (chicken wings) and tsukune, served with hot Japanese mustard and a fresh-grated ginger paste, Kokekokko's flaw lies not in their food but in their rules.
Insisting on a minimum order of five skewers per person (averaging $2.50 a piece), they stretch what should be a casual after-work snack into a snail-paced multi-course meal. Yakitori shouldn't occupy your whole evening—for that you have omakase and kaiseki.
Veering off into izakaya territory, the menu at Nanbankan boasts a selection of "yakitori and other good things," including upwards of a hundred items. Try the cast-iron pot of mixed mushrooms, hot ochazuke soup with rice and seaweed, and yaki onigiri char-broiled rice balls containing cores of salmon or plum.
But save room for at least a few skewers.
Maybe some chicken offal, like sunagimo (giblets), kimo (liver) and hatsu (hearts)? Or stay conservative with tsukune and negima (dark meat chicken with scallions). The food is outstanding, but again, the price point needs to be adjusted, the lights dimmed by half, and the space filled with half-drunk coworkers instead of quiet couples and families.
Both Kokekokko and Nanbankan serve outstanding food, but for that perfect yakitori experience, I'll have to keep looking. Have you had any great yakitori in the U.S.?
About the author: Blessed with a fast metabolism and currently based in Austin, Texas, Citizen Taco eats everywhere and reports on the good stuff.