If you’re a meat eater and ready to dive right into Tokyo’s food culture, then Yakitori should be near the top of your list. This simple food, when prepared right, will transform how you see meat on a stick.
Japanese restaurants specialize down to the smallest detail, rather than offer a variety of foods to choose from. A good Yakitori restaurant will often serve nothing but Yakitori cooked one way. Some even narrow their focus to a single breed of chicken and hone their skills with the same precision as a sushi chef.
Step inside one and you’ll be awe of the depth and quality of something so basic… meat on a stick.
What is Yakitori?
At the most basic level, Yakitori is meat on a stick, but more specifically, it’s chicken meat (but you can often find other meats prepared the same way).
Small pieces of chicken are skewered on bamboo or steel sticks and then grilled over charcoal. They are covered in your choice of two different options: salt or tare sauce (soy based sauce that’s both sweet and salty). Many Yakitori lovers go for just salt because they want to taste the chicken rather than the sauce, but you should probably try both to see what you like.
It’s most commonly a bar food, but there are also gourmet restaurants that grill world class meat from very specific breeds of bird.
The real challenge is figuring out what to have. Don’t be surprised if there are dozens of options to choose from. Even standard cuts, like thigh and breast, may be broken down into several options each. There will also be heart, liver, and skin. They use everything!
This may freak you out if you’re from the western world, but people in Japan eat raw chicken, too. Like sushi, you can get sashimi that’s made out of chicken meat. It’s served sliced and rare and presented beautifully.
There is also chicken that’s not totally raw, but only lightly cooked on the outside. It gives the meat a beautiful color that’s lighter on the outside and pink in the middle, like a rare steak.
While this may be intimidating, there are very high standards of hygiene in the service and preparation of raw meat. They only use the safest parts of the chicken, serve it extremely fresh, and you must eat it right away. High-end Yakitori restaurants will probably have something like this so you should keep that in mind (in case you want to try it or avoid it).
Why you’ll love it
You probably already have an opinion about this, since it’s there are similar foods all over the world, but we wrote this because you’re probably underestimating how good this simple dish can be. It’s not just mediocre grab and go food. A good Yakitori restaurant is nothing less fantastic.
This attention to detail is what stands out. It’s hard to imagine many places where a restaurant can be so specialized that all they serve is skewered chicken. The level of detail to this one dish is mind boggling…
Yakitori is everywhere
There are Yakitori spots all over Tokyo, so you won’t have trouble finding someplace decent. If you just want a basic place to try it out, we recommend just walking around the Yurakucho / Shinbashi area, which is full of Yakitori bars. Here, you’ll be able to find quality Yakitori at a reasonable price in the atmosphere you prefer. The vibe will be more like a bar than a restaurant though.
But, if you really want to try fantastic Yakitori, you’re going to need to head to more of a high-end restaurant. There’s Bird Land in the Ginza neighborhood which only uses the “Okukuji Shamo Chicken.” This specific breed has been found to make some of the best Yakitori around. Beyond the bird, they even select the best charcoal!
Whatever you choose, you’ll never see meat on a stick the same way again…