Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Dream Realized - The Juicy, Smoky, Delectable Grilled Chicken Skewers of Yakitori Yakyudori

It's always inspiring to visit a restaurant that's the lifework of a chef/owner; to see and taste the result of their love of food and the pursuit of a life-long dream. I originally knew nothing about Yakitori Yakyudori, except that it was highly recommended by my friend ila as a great place to get Yakitori (Japanese-style Grilled Chicken Skewers), but after trying the very first skewer, I knew this restaurant was something very special; you could taste the excellence in grilling skills and the absolute devotion to the craft.

Yakitori Yakyudori in Hillcrest is led by Chef Masashi Nabe (pronounced "Na-Beh"). One might think that a Yakitori Grill Master from Japan would target an area like the South Bay in Los Angeles (home of one of the larger Japanese communities in So Cal), but Nabe-san opened up his restaurant in San Diego because of a dream. He had visited San Diego when he was still a young student growing up in Japan, and it made such an impression on him that he vowed to one day earn enough money to move to San Diego and open up a restaurant. :) Nabe-san apprenticed under the Yakitori masters of Yakitori Yakyudori in Nagoya, Japan, and 4 years ago, his dream was realized when he was able to open up his own San Diego version of Yakitori Yakyudori, named in honor of the restaurant where he learned his craft in Nagoya. (It's also humorous to note that the Kanji for "Yakyudori" essentially means "Baseball Bird" - named so because the original chefs and staff are huge baseball fans (and play during their time off). Nabe-san shares the love of baseball as well, and happily keeps that aspect of the restaurant alive. :)

Located along a quiet stretch in Hillcrest, there's already a crowd of people waiting for tables when we arrive (on a weeknight no less). The inside is invitingly cozy and the ambiance already feels like a great neighborhood Yakitori restaurant in Japan: Groups of friends and families are laughing and eating and drinking away with vigor. :)

Looking along their main wall, Yakyudori prominently features the classic "Popular Ranking" lists seen at many Japanese eateries, letting customers know what the most popular dishes are. Here, though, the staff seems to have created 2 lists: "Popular Ranking for American" and "Popular Ranking for Japanese", and the differences between them are interesting.

In what has to be the best handmade sign I've seen in years, Yakyudori has a hilarious sign advertising their Kawasu (Boiled Chicken Skin dish): (^_^)

For this evening, I was fortunate enough to have one of my Yakitori Hounds joining me along with our other guests. Yakyudori's menu is impressive: Not only does it feature all the classic Yakitori items (Chicken Thigh, Chicken Breast, Wings, Heart, Cartilage, etc.), they also have quite a few specialty items not found in most Yakitori restaurants in So Cal (such as Akahimo (Chicken Vein), and Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings)). We quickly order a bunch of classic items and rarer items and excitedly await Chef Masashi's creations.

The first dish to arrive is one that reflects Nabe-san's heritage: Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings).

The Chicken Wings are deep-fried, and then topped with a Jikasei Nagoya-fu Tare (Homemade Nagoya-style Tare Sauce). The result is simply the highlight of the evening: Crispy, juicy, lightly-sweet Fried Chicken Wings that are perfectly fried (so that it doesn't retain very much oil). The oil also tastes fresh (a relief considering too many restaurants don't change out their deep fryer oil often enough), and the Fried Chicken Wings are gone in a matter of minutes. Outstanding! (^_^)

Next to arrive are the Hatsu (Grilled Chicken Heart Skewers) and Gyu Tan (Grilled Beef Tongue). The Hatsu are wonderfully smoky and so juicy. Their outstanding smokiness is the result of Nabe-san importing in a certain type of Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal) from Japan, which is one of the aspects that made the legendary Yakitori Bincho superior to Torihei's offerings.

The Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue) skewer is also juicy and very beefy. The texture leaves something to be desired; it's not bad, but the density and chewiness of the Gyu Tan takes away from the experience.

One of the daily specials arrives next: Hiza Nankotsu no Karaage (Fried Chicken Leg Cartilage).

There's a good crispy, crunchy quality to Yakyudori's version: The breading is lightly seasoned (thankfully not over-salted), and the Chicken Cartilage turns out to be nicely fried with minimal retention of oil. This is definitely one of the better versions of leg/knee Cartilage that I've had in So Cal, but after having the leaner, purer Yagen Nankotsu (from the Chicken Breast area) from Yakitori Bincho and Torihei, the more common dark meat portion seems too excessive at times.

In our haste to try out the enticing selection of skewers, I realized that we forgot to order drinks. :) Yakyudori offers up a large selection of Sake (19 different types), along with the excellent Koshihikari Echigo Beer. While Koshihikari Echigo was tempting, we decided to go with the safe, smooth Suigei sake from Kochi, Japan.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Nabe-san's style of cooking is with their simple Tebasaki (Chicken Wing) skewers.

Maybe it was Nabe-san just getting warmed up, or the Binchotan not being fully ready yet, but from this point on, for the rest of the evening, the skewers were intensely smoky. The Grilled Chicken Wings here are beautifully cooked, with an almost cracklin'-like, crispy skin, giving way to great juicy Chicken meat beneath. The smoke is intense, but not offputting. Excellent.

Their humorously named Bakudan (literally "Bomb") is an entire head of Garlic, roasted until the insides are a delicious, soft, creamy consistency. A great accompaniment with any of the other skewers.

Next up is Tsukune (Chicken Meat Ball). Chef Masashi serves up their Tsukune dipped in their homemade Tare Sauce. It's very moist, but a touch too sweet and too much on the pasty side. I prefer the Tsukune from Yakitori Bincho, Torihei and especially the Tsukune specialist in Kyoto over this version.

Sasami (Chicken Breast) skewers are always a challenging prospect at many Yakitori restaurants. The inherent leanness in Breast meat can result in a dried out skewer if not cooked with the utmost care. Unfortunately, Yakyudori's Ume Sasami (Chicken Breast with Japanese Plum) falters in that way. It's not bad, but merely average in execution, with a very dry Chicken Breast.

Nabe-san recovers nicely with the next dish: Momo (Chicken Thigh) skewers. Very juicy, but intensely smoky (almost uncomfortably so), it's a loud, smack-you-in-the-face type of skewer and standout in its flavor perspective. I prefer the less smoky, Jidori (All-Natural Chicken) version at Yakitori Bincho, but this is quite good. :)

Our Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard) skewers arrive within seconds of the previous dish: These are tiny, bite-sized portions, but taste rather flat. It lacks the vibrancy of the upper echelon, but are better than the norm.

At this point, it seems that the kitchen was too overwhelmed because they had forgotten our last 7 dishes; after waiting another 15-20 minutes with nothing arriving, we asked our waitress about the last 7 dishes, and she checked in and came back to apologize, saying they would start on them right away.

The next dish was something I was looking forward to from the moment I saw it on the menu: P Toro (Pork Toro (from the Neck)). :) Fatty, delicious Pork cooked on skewers? What's not to like? :) Imagine my surprise when the P Toro arrives drenched in their Jikasei Tare (Homemade Tare Sauce). I keep an open mind, but after taking the first bite... the Pork is completely overpowered by the sweet Tare Sauce. It's also extremely smoky at this point (strangely so), and the texture of the Pork is too tough and chewy. It's not something I'd order again.

Nabe-san's Negima (Chicken Thigh with Green Onions) rebounds nicely: A wonderfully succulent version, with a strong smokiness (intense, but still enjoyable).

Like Nabe-san's other Nagoya-style offering, their Chikin Miso Katsu (Fried Chicken Cutlet with Miso) is another outstanding creation! :) A beautiful, perfectly fried skewer of Chicken topped with their own homemade Nagoya-style Miso results in a pure, focused, salty, savory morsel of crispy fried goodness! (^_^) Outstanding!

The next dish is another reason to go to Yakyudori (for its variety): Akahimo (Chicken Vein) skewers!

I've never had Chicken Vein before, but I'm glad I tried it: Each bite is a great textural exploration, occupying a space between a good Ika (Squid) and a juicy Momo (Chicken Thigh). The flavors are also really intense, slightly organ-y, smoky, and yet still retaining enough of the more normal Chicken essence one might hope for.

Their Buta Bara (listed simply as "Pork") skewer, on the other hand, is a dry, overly chewy, salty version of the classic Buta Bara.

Surprisingly, one of the highlights of the evening comes from their Tezukuri Atsuage (Homemade Fried Tofu).

There's an extremely fresh Tofu and Soy flavor that comes shining through. The outer crust is so spot-on, and so seductive in its play with a crispiness and a satisfying firmness, that it's one of the best Atsuage renditions in Southern California. Wonderful!

Our final skewer arrives quickly after: Shiitake (Shiitake Mushroom) skewer topped with Bonito Flakes. It turns out to be a solid version of Shiitake, beautifully fragrant, if a bit overcooked (too dry in some pieces).

We finish up with their Tori Zousui (Japanese Rice Porridge). Unfortunately, it's a fairly typical version of a Zousui, chunky, salty and very straightforward. But for a Yakitori restaurant, it's understandable (i.e., it's not their specialty). It's a far cry from the I-would-drive-from-anywhere-in-Cali, legendary Zousui of Yakitori Bincho (which is made-from-scratch, made when you order(!)), but it's perfectly fine if you happen to crave it at the end of a meal here. :)

Service is just fine for a classic Yakitori restaurant, with a few waitresses taking care of the whole restaurant; just flag them down if you need anything. The service is friendly, energetic and eager-to-please. :) Prices are fair ranging from $3 - $8 per dish. With Sake, we averaged ~$45 per person (including tax and generous tip).

Yakitori Yakyudori is a wonderful surprise in the Hillcrest area: Chef Masashi Nabe is a true Yakitori Master, creating grilled skewers that are generally intensely smoky with big flavors. His Nagoya heritage comes through with his amazing Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings) and Chikin Miso Katsu (Fried Chicken Cutlet Skewers with Homemade Nagoya Miso), both worth visiting the restaurant for, along with many other classic Yakitori offerings.

While there are some misses, Yakitori Yakyudori falls squarely in the upper echelon of Yakitori specialists in Southern California, behind Yakitori Bincho in comparative dishes, but ahead of Torihei in the flavor department (although Chef Masataka Hirai's grill work is superior in some ways, their lack of Japanese Binchotan and flavor infusions at times has them fall just short of Yakyudori). But at the end of the day, like the best restaurants you come across, Yakitori Yakyudori exudes the passion and love and care of the chef in the kitchen, and that's all you can hope for. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8.8 (out of 10.0)

Yakitori Yakyudori
3739 6th Avenue, #B
San Diego, CA 92103
Tel: (619) 692-4189

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 6:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. (Last Call at 12:30 a.m.)


weezermonkey said...

OMG! That bakudan! I think my husband would go nuts for that!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

The Bakudan was indeed delicious! :) If you find yourself in the area, definitely give it a try. :)

CO said...

Hey Exile Kiss, just wanted to say that I remember that night last fall at Bincho with you and SauceSupreme as epic! This place sounds great, and furthermore I really appreciate your straightforward, fair critiques of the dishes and restaurant as a whole. There are loads of wannabe food authorities/reviewers that want to be everyones friend. We don't need that. We need people like you that aren't afraid to say something was off/bad/ill prepared. Thanks again for showing people how to do a damn food blog!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi CO,

How's it going? :) Bincho was a great dinner. Thank you for your kind words; I'm just writing about places and hoping it's helpful. Let me know the next time you're in town. :)

glutster said... definitely know to appreciate the flavor of the almighty 'charr' element!

looking forward to hangin out more often!

see you very soon ;)

ila said...

glad to see that you :finally: went! i usually only get shio here because i find that the tare can overpower the awesome chicken goodness.
one time they had the yagen nankotsu skewers, and it was like... surround sound 7.2. epic crunchy and delicious. But that was last august, and I haven't seen it one the menu since :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

I love Yakitori in general. :) Yes, definitely looking forward to it. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thanks again for bugging me repeatedly to try it! (^_~) I'm glad I finally went. Love this restaurant.

Wow, they had Yagen Nankotsu once? I'm sad I missed out on it. :( I can imagine with Nabe-san's cooking and Yagen Nankotsu... it would be pretty impressive.

KingT said...

I'll be stopping here on my next trip...great site.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi KingT,

Nice! :) I hope you like Yakyudori. Let me know how it went if you get a chance. :)

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