Everyday Japan – Yakitori

Stepping into the narrow smoke-filled alley, I squeeze past a mix of white-shirted “salarymen”, a gaggle of eastern European tourists, and Japanese hipsters snapping pictures with iPhones. On both sides, impossibly narrow shops consisting of a counter, a few bar stools and a charcoal grill are crammed full of people, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, enjoying a hot summer evening eating yakitori.

Yakitori dining isn’t as much about eating as it is fellowship. It’s a time to get together with friends and throw back a few beers (or something stronger) while dining on skewers of grilled chicken, yakitori. Yakitori can’t necessarily be compared to American BBQ. Yakitori is a chicken head-to-tail delicacy. Yes, there are the old standards of thigh meat, interspersed with Japanese leeks and called “negima” or for the carnivores, just the meat, (momo), grilled wings (tebasaki), and ground chicken (tsukune). But there are also more exotic yakitori: chicken skin (kawa), tails (bonjiri), liver (rebaa), hearts (hato/kokoro), and cartilage (nankotsu).

Outside the West exit of the behemoth Shinjuku Station stands a remnant of the past that remains as popular today as it was when it opened 70 years ago. In fact, it is now called Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, in honor of its history, though its actual name in the past was Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination how it got that name. Right after WW2 when food was scarce, entrepreneurial folks set up makeshift stalls outside of Shinjuku Station selling small pieces of chicken meat (and parts) that were easily obtained from Allied occupational forces. These stalls became Omoide Yokocho, and have become such a part of the neighborhood that the community rebuilt the whole area when a fire nearly gutted it in the 1990s.

Quite the opposite of how many people think of Japan, Omoide Yokocho is rowdy and gritty (though not dangerous), full of loud laughter and coarse joking among comrades. Thousands of Japanese salarymen filter through the alley every weeknight, using the easy atmosphere and free-flowing alcohol to blow off steam from their stressful or boring jobs. If the Tokyo workforce seems robotic during the workday, this is a great place to visit to remind yourself that they, like you, are regular human beings who need time to relax and friends to be themselves around.

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California Dreamin’ – Brown Sugar Kitchen

In my continuing quest to eat as many of my favorite foods as possible that will be difficult or expensive to get in Japan, I decided to make a stop at Brown Sugar Kitchen, home of what could be Oakland’s best chicken and waffles. This particular morning, I took our car in for service and the service manager said I had 3 hours to kill and a shuttle that would take me anywhere in a 3 mile radius. The decision was made in an instant.

Brown Sugar Kitchen is located in a part of West Oakland that you could charitably say isn’t the most desirable neighborhood. Signs posted outside the restaurant warn “Don’t Feed the Thieves”, meaning don’t leave anything valuable in your car if you don’t want to come out to a pile of broken glass on the street next to your shattered window. Inside, however, you could be in any hip neighborhood of Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco. Hipster college students, retirees, and local residents all gather together to partake of a little bit of heaven: chicken and waffles.

These aren’t just any chicken and waffles. They are buttermilk battered chicken and cornmeal waffles with a dollop of brown sugar butter and warm apple cider syrup. Though the waitress tempted me with smoked pork hash (which smelled incredible when I walked in the door), I had my heart set on the chicken and waffles today. Focus, Todd, focus.

There is something amazing about the complexity of eating chicken and waffles together. Especially THESE chicken and waffles. First you have the flavor complexity: sweet syrup and butter, tart buttermilk batter, slightly salty chicken meat. Then you have the texture complexity: crunchy fried chicken batter and cornmeal waffle, slightly chewy chicken, and creamy butter. Put all that complexity together and it just explodes in your mouth. Seriously, how do two relatively simple dishes combine together to create something so incredible?

After my meal, I called for a shuttle back to the dealership and waited for my ride. When the driver pulled up, he smiled and said “I thought I might find you here.” As we drove back to the dealer, he pointed out a few other places he and his wife had tried around the neighborhood. “But,” he said with a knowing grin, “I’d pass them all up for Brown Sugar Kitchen.”

Brown Sugar Kitchen
234 Mandela Pkwy
Oakland, California
510-839-SOUL (7685)