Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Yakitori Triad

Three Japanese restaurants, a single concept: food on a stick. Let's skip the clevernesses and dive right in.

Number one, with a bullet: Kokekokko. 203 South Central Ave., downtown LA. Incidentally, "Kokokekko!" is the Japanese version of the sound a rooster makes.

First of all, click on the link. See that guy with the scissors? He is a super-badass. He's also the head chef; the Sensei. This is a man of few words--he's like a Japanese Dirty Harry who serves chicken skewers. I can only imagine what would happen if you got on his bad side. Remember: this is the man who prepares your MEDIUM-RARE CHICKEN PARTS. More on this in a sec.

From the moment you enter, you sense the real-ness, the authentude, the genuinity of Kokekokko. I've been to Kokekokko half a dozen times, yet every time I enter, I'm asked and told the same things: First time here? (No.) You know only chicken? (Yes.) No sushi? (Got it.) You sure? (Enough already.) Only then do I get to sit (or wait, depending on the night). Rough-hewn wooden tables surround a bar, which dominates the place, and behind which the Sensei and his minions toil away making your dinner. Like at many Japanese spots, sitting at the bar is the clear way to go, unless you have a large party. (In addition to the bar and tables, there are a few private rooms, the insides of which I've never seen.) Even sitting in this place is not for the meek--the barstools are basically stumps with the thinnest of cushions lying on top, and dinner always lasts a while, so stretch out and be ready.

You sit. You bow your head to your designated minion, or to the Sensei, if he looks your way. You order a sake from their small but pretty worthy list of sakes--make mine Harushika or Otokoyama, nice and cold, with that saucer to catch the extra they always pour. Then you glance at the menu, and you order. This is a yakitoriya, so you order yakitori--skewers. Here, you have basically two choices as far as process: you can order a "set menu," which gives you a good overview of the chicken, or you order by the piece (minimum 5, at about $2.50 a pop). I used to do set, now I do piecemeal, since I know what I like. What do I like? I like gizzards, neck, cartilage (knee, I think), heart and liver. And I like the breast meat, provided they'll do it medium-rare, which makes it like chicken sashimi.

Everything at Kokekokko is done perfectly. The organ skewers are perfectly moist and funky and impeccably fresh (when they run out of something, they're out of that something--no day-old stores of anything for backup), and are served with the perfect condiments--mountain salt (a revelation in itself) for the gizzard and neck, hot mustard for the hearts and livers. The breast-meat gets freshly grated ginger and wasabi. The cartilage stands alone and absolutely rocks my world. Even the legs and thighs and wings and white-meat-and-veggie skewers are good. Oh, and the skin is great--and I don't just mean the skin on the items listed above: you can have an all-skin skewer, and what could be better than that?

Things come out when they're ready, so be prepared--you might have to wait a while even once you're seated, and then there may be spates of orders coming together. It ain't L'Orangerie, but that's a good thing. If you're starving, order some tsukemono, or another sake, or both. Just don't forget where you parked. Among the yakitoria sampled in this article, Kokekokkowa ichiban desu.

Number two: Yakitori-ya. 11301 West Olympic #101, West LA.

First of all, Yakitori-ya is on Sawtelle, not Olympic. If its proprietors want an Olympic address, that's fine, but it does confuse things a bit. Anyway.

Yakitori-ya is fine. I mean, it's totally fine. It's just not great. Its decor is standard; its counter is in the back and seats fewer than 10 in a straight line (as opposed to Kokekokko's 25 or so, in a U-shape). The cooks are still behind the counter, but its all kind of shunted out of the way. The floor is dominated by tables, and not of the rough-timber picnic-table variety--just tables.

The food is by no means bad, but after Kokekokko, it's unmemorable. Oh, except for the PREMATURE CHICKEN EGGS discussed in the piece directly below this one. Yeah, Yakitori-ya has the unfortunate distinction of being the place that served me these international-animal-rights-violations. I swear that this has not affected my feelings about the place overall, but it does bear mentioning. Ok, so they even warned me off of them and I insisted, but still. The problem is that with middle-of-the-road offerings otherwise, the p-m.c.e.'s were what stood out, and not to anyone's benefit. Add to this that Yakitori-ya is a bit too expensive, and that the whole vibe is just less cool, and you've got a utility meal plus. If you must have skewers and are on the westside, it'll fill the bill.

As will number three: Nanbankan. 11330 Santa Monca Blvd., West LA, really close to the 405 underpass if you know where that is.

I could link you to several glowing reviews of Nanbankan, all of which I read on the same day and which sent me there that same night. Ever have that thing happen where you read the review and all of a sudden it's like the entire rest of your day becomes about getting to that restaurant? That's what happened. I actually drove home to Hollywood from work and BACK TO THE WEST SIDE just to eat there. That's when you know things are serious.

But serious they did not remain. I sat next to Moe, a Persian diamond merchant, who dines at Nanbankan three or so times a week. Moe was great to talk to, which was a good thing, since it took my mind off the food, which was mediocre in the extreme. Hearts and livers? Nearly indistinguishable in their dried-out greyness and chicken-livers-from-an-omelette-at-Roscoe's lack of flavor. Neck? Greasy and non-descript--completely lacking the crunch of Kokekokko's. Tail? Sadly, same--and I had never had chicken tail, so I was really looking forward to this. The only stand-out was the breast-bone cartilage, which was genuinely excellent in its unique, meaty crunchiness. I really love cartilage, and this was no exception--although at $4.50 a pop, it was among the most expensive skewers on the menu (they were out of regular cartilage that night). But I was never offered any salt, any mustard, any anything, to go with the different meats. Not that good meat always needs an accompaniment, but mediocre meat sure does. No wonder the white folks outnumber all others at Nanbankan by like 4 to 1--it's just chicken on a stick, and not much else. (Bear in mind that I did not order the "much else" on the menu, which included sushi, maki and other Japanese generalities from which I should've gleaned this place's true nature from Jump Street.)

My dinner at Nanbankan did teach me that Moe thinks Persian men are not hardwired for monogamy, that he thinks this downtown renaissance will be the one that works, and that the universe is premised on opposites. Good, solid food for thought, to make up for the lack of good, solid food. I'll try Nanbankan again if someone else is paying, and driving. As I said above, others have raved about this place, and I don't hold a grudge, much.

Final score is above, reflected by the order of the reviews, top down. Live on the Westside and now despairing? Downtown is not that far on the 10. Tell you what: I'll even meet you there. Seriously: anytime.



17 Comments:

Blogger MEalCentric said...

Oh how I wish I could participate in this tasting...invite?

1:09 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

sadly, the tasting is done. all that's left is the writing.

on the other hand, i may need to check out my initial thoughts again and not make any snap judgments...

2:46 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...

meet you there?

i only know nanbankan ;)

12:31 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

i think there's a trip in the offing. three of us, lots of skewers and sake...? the working blogger in me thinks another trip to my numbers 2 or 3, just to give them a fair shake...but i can ALWAYS be convinced to go to kokekokko again.

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Sign me up

9:26 AM  
Blogger Daily Gluttony said...

i looove the SKIN SKEWERS at kokekokko. damn tasty.

btw, love your blog. very entertaining.

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