Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The art of yakitori -- Little Tokyo

Server: Have you been here before?
Guest: No
Server: Do you know that we don't make sushi here?
Guest: Yes
Server: You know there is minimum order of 5 skewers per customer?
Guest: Yes
Server: Counter or table?
Guest: Counter
Server: Please wait for a minute.

This is the exchange that happens upon entering into Kokekokko, a small Yakitori restaurant on Central Ave. Yakitori is Japanese for "grilled chicken." Every part of the chicken is skewered and grilled to perfection over charcoal, and you eat sort of tapas-style, where a skewer or two show up every 10-15 minutes, and you wash it all down with a nice frosty beer.

Kokekokko is a very authentic experience if you remove the above exchange first -- if you're in Japan and enter a Yakitori joint, you know that they don't do sushi. The grill master here is a middle-aged Japanese guy (well, the whole staff is Japanese) who almost seems like he could have spent some time in the Yakuza once you hear him yelling at the staff... Definite Grill-Nazi potential here. But then again, once you're eating, he'll come over and ask how you like things done, if you're enjoying yourself, and will adjust seasonings and condiments based on whether he thinks you're worthy, or not. But I get ahead of myself.

I think a funny thing here is that I'm in this Japanese restaurant, speaking Japanese, and the entire staff take about 20 minutes to realize that I do the lingo. Granted, I had puppy white-boy next to me that needed some explanation ("No fork for you!"), I was amused that these people had such a hard time looking at me and hearing native Japanese coming out of my mouth. You'd think that in LA of all places, they'd be used to a not-so-Japanese looking guy speaking Japanese. The Oyaji (grill master) finally got it and asked "Sansei?" (third genereration Japanese immigrant), and I explained that I'm first generation (i.e. born and raised in Japan) but half. The service got MUCH better at this point.

The first skewer up was breast. It's actually the breast tender that in Japanese is called "sasami." Once the above exchange was completed and Oyaji understood that I was native, he tells me, "I'm doing this more Japanese style, medium-rare." Yes, I said that. Yes, chicken, yes, medium-rare. Actually it came out more raw than not. I trust a place like this, and if I actually were in Japan, I could have gotten the chicken completely raw. He tells expediter-boy to season our "breast" with wasabi and ginger. The first two bites with that sinus clearing blast of wasabi, the second two with the warmth of ginger. At this point, I'm in heaven. Expediter-boy still things I only speak English though...

The whole meal was really masterful, each piece perfectly seasoned and served with the perfect condiments. We had chicken balls (soft and salty and sinful), gizzard (crunchy and no offal taste whatsoever), quail eggs (yum), and a couple other pieces.

Finally, it gets through to expediter-boy that I'm Japanese, so he leans over the counter and asks me if there are any "specials" I'd like to have. I ask what's available, and go for neck meat (yippy-ki-yay! that was good), and cartilage (mmmmm, meaty... crunchy...).

All in all wonderful experience. I felt like I went back to Japan for a little while and I was so happy. I was also happy that puppy-white-boy that I went with didn't pull what some others around me have in the past... he not only let me enjoy the wonderful food, he tried everything end enjoyed it too.

Go, it's worth it!

203 S. Central Ave., Little Tokyo
(213) 687-0690

Happy Eating!

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