Yakitori is the Japanese word for grilled chicken on a skewer. This is by far my favorite Japanese delicacy. It is not expensive nor does it retain the exotic appeal of sushi but it is traditional and tasty. Yakitori is often served up by street side vendors, most commonly at shrines, sporting events and on the pathway next to Yoyogi Park. There are hundreds of yakitori restaurants scattered throughout Tokyo, but our favorite one is Kushiwakamaru located in Naka-Meguro, the last stop on the Hibiya line.
We came about this fabulous find like so many others in Tokyo – through word of mouth. A friend at the American Embassy was taken here by a local Japanese colleague and passed on the secret spot to us a while back. Ever since that first introduction, we have been loyal patrons, standing outside for up to an hour, waiting for a table in the restaurant that seats no more than 30 (okay maybe 30 Japanese and 25 Westerners).
Items on the menu range from tebasaki (chicken wings) and aspura bacon(asparagus and bacon) to the more adventurous torinankotu (chicken cartilege) and uzu ranotamago (quail egg). It’s a great eating out option when trying to accommodate various tastes and dietary restrictions. For vegetarians, there are often one or two tofu skewers available as well as numerous vegetable options.
Before finding this place, we had searched high and low for that perfect skewer of grilled meat. There were several street vendors whom I favored, but once we discovered Kushiwakamaru there was no turning back, no settling for anywhere else. Anytime we want yakitori, we go to Kushiwakamaru. Not only is the food amazing, but also the atmosphere offers up a unique and truly cultural Japanese dining experience.
The space is small and cramped. Personal space doesn’t exist once you step inside the sliding wooden door. There is bar seating available, which is my favorite as you can sit and watch as two men grill each and every skewer to perfection. Clouds of steam and smoke don’t deter me, as this is the best seat in the house. The rest of the space consists of small tables with even smaller chairs. You’re likely to feel like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput when trying to squish your knees under what feels like a kid’s size table.
Outside, they have placed four chairs because the wait is inevitable. There is a pachinko (rows of slot machines set up in a casino-like fashion) parlor next door for those willing to subject their lungs and sanity to the inane clatter of ringing metal balls and billows of cigarette smoke. Pachinko parlors for me serve one purpose only – a clean and accessible washroom. The one next to our yakitori joint is especially pleasant as they provide floral pink toilet paper and background music as you do your business.
The clientele at Kushiwakamaru is 75% Japanese. There are usually one or two foreigners knocking elbows with locals. The guys who run our local yakitori joint know us well. We brought them some Canadian ice wine one time to show our appreciation for both their wonderful service and delicious food. A year later we asked if they had opened the bottle to which one replied, “ Ah no, not yet, we save for special occasion.”
We will miss this place when we leave Tokyo. In the meantime, I intend to eat as much yakitori as possible and pass on the secret restaurant to a select few foreigners so as not to create yet another tourist trap. Below are the details on where to find this great restaurant.
Tel. 3715-9292 (when dialing local in Tokyo)
Open 5pm-midnight daily
Go to bento.com for map and directions