I've recently turned to the Travel Channel to get my food-show fix. My favorite is No Reservations, which follows the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed chef Anthony Bordain as he feasts his way through destinations far and wide. Bordain is perpetually snarky but always eats with an open mind and an open stomach. One of the best episodes featured an epic street-cuisine crawl through Osaka, a city in Japan so obsessed with food that the locals have a specific word for their singular passion-kuidaore-which literally means to become poor because of too much eating and drinking.
As I watched the show, drooling a bit as Bordain dines with gusto on one delicious-looking Japanese snack after another, I knew I was due for another trip to Hillcrest's Yakitori Yakyudori, an authentic outpost of a Japanese restaurant chain where you can find serious food satisfaction without fear of going bankrupt.
Yakitori is skewered bits of meat and vegetables cooked on a narrow grill over special super-hot-burning charcoal from Japan. Nabe, the young owner of Yakitori Yakyudori, learned the art of this technique in Nagoya, Japan. He tends the grill with patient diligence, flipping and rotating each skewer until it's charred to perfection. The grilling process allows the fat in the meat to melt away, basting it with flavor as it goes. Chunks of chicken thigh are simply seasoned with salt but burst with savory richness. Juicy pork is wrapped around shiso, a mildly minty Japanese herb, and cooked to a burnished brown. A blanket of bacon helps asparagus spears stay crisp yet tender and lends porky goodness. Sweet-hot Japanese green peppers and thankfully un-slimy okra are grilled and showered with salty bonito tuna flakes. Nuggets of tender beef are topped with cool grated radish and sauced with tart ponzu.
All this yakitori is delicious but comes from the safer, less adventurous section of the menu. The real fun starts when you delve into the nasty bits that are popular with Japanese customers and food freaks like me. The grilled beef tongue is a wonder, full of pure flavor and subtle smokiness from the grill. It is lean, pleasantly chewy and wholly fantastic. Teba are chicken wings that have been deconstructed and reassembled onto skewers for maximum meat-to-heat exposure. They are mostly all crunchy skin, undoubtedly the best part. The kawasu had my friends praising its excellence before they knew what it really was. It's not a grilled item but rather a cold snack of boiled, julienned strips of chicken skin mixed with scallions and marinated in a citrus-soy dressing. I'm happy to report that my friends went back for more even after the dish's provenance was revealed.
Other non-grilled items include shrimp dumplings, fried crisp, and takoyaki, savory octopus fritters dabbed with Japanese mayo and sweet tonkatsu.
The teriyaki sauce here is relatively light and not as syrupy sweet as other renditions. It tops a quartet of battered and fried chicken wings and flavors a vast bowl of teriyaki chicken and rice. And, on a cold night, a comforting rice soup made with fish stock and flakes of salmon hits the spot.
Beer is the thing to drink with this food, and the place has lots of Japanese brews to choose from, by the bottle or pitcher. On a whim, though, I tried a drink made with shochu, a distilled alcohol with a lot more kick than sake. Cocktails are amusingly DIY here-my order came with a glass of ice, soda water and shochu but also with half a grapefruit and a plastic juice squeezer.
Food-wise, the yakitori is really the way to go, and you can sample a variety of tastes, conventional or exotic, without breaking the bank. Each order comes with two skewers and averages $3 to $5. There is also a weekday happy hour with specials on beer, sake and an assortment of bar snacks.
Yakitori Yakyudori is great for groups, although if you just come with a friend, it can be fun to sit at the bar and watch Nabe as he mans the grill and hands you sizzling sticks of food. Most dinners end with a tabletop strewn with detritus, littered with skewers stripped clean and piled with bare plates. Whatever you do, save room for a scoop of incredible black sesame-seed ice cream-nutty and rich-with the little touch of salt that turns sweet desserts into hot-damn deliciousness.
Yakitori Yakyudori is open nightly for dinner from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; closed Tuesdays.