Yakitori is street food inside a restaurant–and uses the same style of advertisement. The yakitori chef does his cooking near a window in front of the shop, in full veiw of the hungry public, tempting all with the smell of freshly grilled chicken.
One thing about Japan is that you don’t get big food, you get a lot of small food. Think of yakitori as mini barbecue skewers. You order by the skewer, and prices can range from around 100 yen to 300, depending.
My favorite little mom and pops is called Irashai (welcome) and run by an old man who cannot understand foreigner’s Japanese, yet whose restaurant is staffed by young Chinese waitresses.
“Shio chikin kudasai.” One salt chicken, please.
“Wakaranai.” I don’t understand.
He turns to his wife. “Nanto iteta?” What was he saying?
“Ah. Shio chiken. Sho sho omachi.” Ah, what you said in completely intelligible Japanese the first time. Wait a bit.
Fortunately most yakitori shops have a menu ticket you can fill out and give to the waitress–if you can read it, that is.
There’s a chain yakitori shop across the street, but in Irashai’s casual atmosphere spontaneous guitar playing can break out at any moment, with the entire restaurant singing along.
The patrons are old salarymen looking for a place to take off their ties and have a drink. Everyone knows the owner, and calls his wife “chan,” a term meaning “Ms” used for young girls, despite her being over fifty.
It’s these little places that can turn a meal into something special. That’s when they become your little place, another safe haven in the network of islands you stitch together into your own private country.
In the case of yakitori, “yaki” means grilled and “tori” means chicken. But yakitori is any kind of meat. And any part. Heart? Of course. Liver? Okay. Brain? No problem. Skin? Whatever you want, pal.
You have a choice of salt or ta-re (a thick sauce,) for seasoning. Both are good, and which to choose is purely a matter of taste. Why not try both? Depending on the dish, you also might gets some karashi, spicy mustard.
And being a yakitori shop, the drink of choice is anything with alcohol in it. Irashai’s crowd is mostly old men, so Hoppy is often popular. It’s a beer-flavored nonalcoholic drink mixed together with sho chu, a popular Japanese drink with about 25% alcohol by volume. There are two kinds of Hoppy, black and white. Black, when mixed with sho chu, tastes just like beer, but at a much cheaper price. It’s perfect for old men struggling to stretch the thin allowances given them by their wives.
So the yakitori shop, at least in my neck of the woods, is where old salarymen can kick back and complain about their wives. It’s loud, crowded, and smokey, and that’s just the way they want it. Because it’s their place, and if you want to come and see, that’s fine. But if you don’t, that’s fine too.
But I recommend you do.