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September 05, 2012

Yakitori Yakyudori

Tsukune Dominic Armato

It wasn't my intention to turn a trip to San Diego into a tour of Japanese joints, but somehow it worked out that way. I dunno... when it's late and I'm sneaking out once the kids have crashed, for some reason there's usually little that sounds better to me than some raw fish. Or a bowl of noodles. Or tasty little chunks of grilled meat.

Yakitori Yakyudori came highly recommended by a trusted friend, and it was immediately evident that he's not alone in his assessment. While word was mixed on the ramen, the namesake yakitori seemed to be almost universally appreciated. Combine that with late hours, and it was a total shoo-in for the schedule.

The Robata GrillDominic Armato

I loved it the moment we walked in. I'd just visited Japan for the first time in years this past January, and it was so refreshing to walk into a Japanese restaurant in the States that felt like it could have been plucked from Tokyo. Well... if they packed it into half the space, anyway. No over-the-top faux decorations, no lame mysteries of the Orient vibe... just a stripped down, casual joint for people to hang out, have a beer and get some good food. One place where it differs is in the size of the menu. There's a lot on there, including all kinds of little bites, bowls of ramen, an entire section devoted to fried items and more. It makes me a little sad that a place that does it this well still feels the need to do everything. But the yakitori is clearly the focus, and that's where we expended most of our energy. They're not taking the crazy artful sand pit route, but they do it right here, grilling skewers over imported binchotan, the almost smokeless, clean burning high carbon charcoal that's the stuff of choice for those who are serious about the stuff. It ensures that the smoke you taste is generated by the drippings, and makes for a very clean grill flavor that doesn't overpower the food.

TakoyakiDominic Armato

But before getting to the main event, we decided to take a token crack at the rest of the menu. I love takoyaki. It's snacky booze food all over. When it's good, the batter gets a nice crisp exterior, it stays soft and volcanic within, it's slathered in sweet and salty takoyaki sauce and sticky mayonnaise -- the scent of the bonito, a chunk of octopus in the middle to gently chew on... this stuff makes me happy. What threw me what that it was on the fried section of the menu. They're usually made on a griddle with semi-spherical pits the size of golf balls. But these were, indeed, deep fried, almost resembling hush puppies in appearance. The result was an unusually extreme textural contrast between the shell and the interior -- crisp bordering on cruncy for the former and just barely set for the latter. And while I can't say they'll be supplanting the griddled version in my heart, there was something to be said for the variant and they were very well-executed.

YakitoriDominic Armato

And then the yakitori started to roll. And while it wasn't flawless, for the most part, man, it was good. The tsukune, pictured at the top, was exceptionally light. In truth, I'm unsure whether I consider that a good or a bad thing. There was clearly a fair amount of filler in addition to the ground chicken, but I like to think that isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the flavor certainly wasn't lacking. As with most of the skewered items we tried, the small plate was almost a tease. Working clockwise from the top left, next up was the negima, tender and juicy chicken thigh skewered with green onion, bearing just a touch of char and smoke, killer flavor, prepared by a cook who's unafraid to use salt as an actual flavor rather than simply as a neutral seasoning. This is a good thing. The Buta Shiso Maki, pork rolled with peppery shiso leaves, wasn't one of the stronger offerings. Though tasty, it came out a little dry and I wasn't getting as much out of the shiso as I would have liked. But the ume puree was an awesome salty, tart foil for fatty pork, and on that basis I still dug it. The Gyu Oroshi Ponzu is so easy to like. It's great beef, a chewy and flavorful cut, topped with tons of grated radish, ponzu and shredded scallion. It's a crowd pleaser. Perhaps a little less universally appealing but dearer to my heart was the beef tongue... juicy, salty and intensely flavored with a satisfying chew. It would be, I think, a great intro to the cut for the tongue curious, unashamed about its true nature but made in a very approachable manner. The chicken liver was dynamite, a touch of char on the edges but mostly cooked so that it was just barely set, and still jiggling in the middle. I realize that for a lot of people I'm not making the sale here, but for me this is heaven. And we rounded out the evening's yakitori offerings with some simple, fresh shishito peppers, topped with shaved bonito flapping in the breeze.

Spicy Miso RamenDominic Armato

Though Yakudori is clearly about the yakitori, the paucity of good ramen back home led us to take a little detour into that portion of the menu. Though the scant $1.50 discount means they aren't exactly cost effective, I loved that half bowls were on offer for those who didn't want to make a complete meal out of it. I went spicy miso ramen, and though I'd recently gorged on some impossible standards, this wasn't a bad bowl of ramen. It wasn't operating at the level of a place like Santouka or, from what I'm told, the products of the recent Los Angeles ramen boom, but it had some nice flavor, solid noodles, and was clearly made with some care. If I could get a bowl of ramen late at night like this on a regular basis, it could be a problem. I also snagged a taste of my friend's shio ramen, which was deliciously clean and salty (shocker), and had a lovely piece of pork.

Shio RamenDominic Armato

I can't figure why yakitori hasn't caught on widely outside of the West Coast and a few major cities to the right. Who the heck doesn't like sweet and salty pieces of skewered, grilled meat? Yakitori is one of those international food subsets that can stay completely true to itself and still maintain near-universal appeal. I mean, we can get the American mainstream to adopt raw fish, but grilled chicken is a bridge too far? Is it the livers and hearts and gizzards? Stick to the chicken thigh and chunks of beef, then. We'll call it gateway yakitori. This is all my way of saying that I really enjoyed Yakitori Yakyudori, and I wish places like it were more common. It's such an enjoyable, satisfying place to get some great food and spend a little time, and when you get a feast like this plus a few beers for $60, it's a smoking deal, too. No pun intended. I anxiously await the day when places like Yakyudori are everywhere, fighting for dominance and forcing each other to get better and better. But in the meantime, I'll gladly take it as a great stop when visiting San Diego.

Yakitori Yakyudori
4898 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - Midnight


I want this. You would figure if they can have Korean joints with the burners in the tables or in the little private rooms, they could sort Yakitori. Sounds fantastic, by the way.

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