The aroma of charcoal and sizzling meat wafts, saliva held back only by the incessant gulping of ice-cold Japanese lager. It's date night at Yakitori Yakyudori & Ramen, and I'm about to joust some perfectly cooked animal parts into my mouth, and my date's—if he's lucky.
Since moving from its Hillcrest location to Convoy Street—and with the addition of ramen and lunch menus—the Japanese pub has exploded in popularity to the point where business suits line up at noon and, after 7 p.m., chances of eating within the hour are dismal. The secret is out, but the solution is in sister restaurant Hinotez—if it can hit the high marks set by the original.
Less than a mile away and triple Yakitori's size, Hinotez exudes more of a restaurant vibe than that of a boisterous izakaya (Japanese for “pub”). Here, there's a bar to sit at, but no grill-master performance art to be observed; sadly, chef and grill are back in the kitchen.
Hinotez opened last fall and has been serving yakitori—grilled chicken and other meats-on-a-stick—only since mid February. Before that, it served everything from ramen to udon, fried foods and bento boxes—the reviews of which haven't been stellar.
I decided to pop in for lunch one day not too long ago and ordered the udon with an addition of tempura shrimp and vegetables. The fried stuff tasted like oil, which was more off-putting than offensive, but the thick, tubular noodles in the dashi-mirin broth were savory, sweet and umami-licious. Next time, I'll stick to plain udon for $4.50.
About a week later, a hot date and I tried the yakitori (served after 5:30 p.m.). Besides the bar, there are booths, a private dining area for parties and traditional izakaya seating that invites you to take off your shoes, sit on a tatami mat and enjoy your feast on the low table before you. That seating was full, so we settled at the bar, where I attempted to order a beer—only to find out that Hinotez doesn't have an alcohol license yet. Gasp!
An order of yakitori comes with two skewers of meat, and there are plenty of options—from chicken hearts to plain ol' beef. We ordered the chicken thigh, pork and beef-tongue skewers, all of which shared the same delectable flavors as Yakitori Yakyudori's, with one noticeable difference: not enough char. The meat was salty, juicy and smoky but missed the slightly bitter singe, especially on the green onions that separate chunks of flavorful chicken. They taste so damn good burnt a little. I also craved that beer.
The menu is more well-rounded than Yakitori's, with a section for curry and sushi, too. We moved on to some additional items, including slices of barbecue pork akin to what you'll find in ramen that were a tad dry around the edges but excellent in flavor. My favorite izakaya snack besides yakitori is karaage, which I think is what Americans attempt with “popcochicken.” Light, fluffy pieces with a barely there, crispy coating are moist and excellent dunked into a side of Japanese Kewpie-brand mayonnaise, whose remarkable difference is the flavor-enhancing additive MSG. This chicken, which I fell for at Yakitori, and a vat of Kewpie each have places on my “last meal” menu.
Hinotez is off to a slow start with a still-developing menu and dining space, but I predict that time—plus beer and sake—will season the dining experience just right. A duplicate site for sexy, meaty date nights? Probably not—but I've yet to try the Japanese breakfast served daily (7 to 11:30 a.m.), which could change my love life altogether.