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A Dream Realized - The Juicy, Smoky, Delectable Grilled Chicken Skewers of Yakitori Yakyudori (San Diego) [Review] w/ Pics!

(Formatted with All Pictures here:
http://exilekiss.blogspot.com/2009/08...

It's always inspiring to visit a restaurant that's the lifework of a chef/owner; to see and taste the result of their love of food and the pursuit of a life-long dream. I originally knew nothing about Yakitori Yakyudori, except that it was highly recommended by my friend ila as a great place to get Yakitori (Japanese-style Grilled Chicken Skewers), but after trying the very first skewer, I knew this restaurant was something very special; you could taste the excellence in grilling skills and the absolute devotion to the craft.

Yakitori Yakyudori in Hillcrest is led by Chef Masashi Nabe (pronounced "Na-Beh"). One might think that a Yakitori Grill Master from Japan would target an area like the South Bay in Los Angeles (home of one of the larger Japanese communities in So Cal), but Nabe-san opened up his restaurant in San Diego because of a dream. He had visited San Diego when he was still a young student growing up in Japan, and it made such an impression on him that he vowed to one day earn enough money to move to San Diego and open up a restaurant. :) Nabe-san apprenticed under the Yakitori masters of Yakitori Yakyudori in Nagoya, Japan, and 4 years ago, his dream was realized when he was able to open up his own San Diego version of Yakitori Yakyudori, named in honor of the restaurant where he learned his craft in Nagoya. (It's also humorous to note that the Kanji for "Yakyudori" essentially means "Baseball Bird" - named so because the original chefs and staff are huge baseball fans (and play during their time off). Nabe-san shares the love of baseball as well, and happily keeps that aspect of the restaurant alive. :)

Located along a quiet stretch in Hillcrest, there's already a crowd of people waiting for tables when we arrive (on a weeknight no less). The inside is invitingly cozy and the ambiance already feels like a great neighborhood Yakitori restaurant in Japan: Groups of friends and families are laughing and eating and drinking away with vigor. :)

Looking along their main wall, Yakyudori prominently features the classic "Popular Ranking" lists seen at many Japanese eateries, letting customers know what the most popular dishes are. Here, though, the staff seems to have created 2 lists: "Popular Ranking for American" and "Popular Ranking for Japanese", and the differences between them are interesting.

In what has to be the best handmade sign I've seen in years, Yakyudori has a hilarious sign advertising their Kawasu (Boiled Chicken Skin dish): (^_^)

For this evening, I was fortunate enough to have one of my Yakitori Hounds joining me along with our other guests. Yakyudori's menu is impressive: Not only does it feature all the classic Yakitori items (Chicken Thigh, Chicken Breast, Wings, Heart, Cartilage, etc.), they also have quite a few specialty items not found in most Yakitori restaurants in So Cal (such as Akahimo (Chicken Vein), and Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings)). We quickly order a bunch of classic items and rarer items and excitedly await Chef Masashi's creations.

The first dish to arrive is one that reflects Nabe-san's heritage: Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings).

The Chicken Wings are deep-fried, and then topped with a Jikasei Nagoya-fu Tare (Homemade Nagoya-style Tare Sauce). The result is simply the highlight of the evening: Crispy, juicy, lightly-sweet Fried Chicken Wings that are perfectly fried (so that it doesn't retain very much oil). The oil also tastes fresh (a relief considering too many restaurants don't change out their deep fryer oil often enough), and the Fried Chicken Wings are gone in a matter of minutes. Outstanding! (^_^)

Next to arrive are the Hatsu (Grilled Chicken Heart Skewers) and Gyu Tan (Grilled Beef Tongue). The Hatsu are wonderfully smoky and so juicy. Their outstanding smokiness is the result of Nabe-san importing in a certain type of Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal) from Japan, which is one of the aspects that made the legendary Yakitori Bincho superior to Torihei's offerings.

The Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue) skewer is also juicy and very beefy. The texture leaves something to be desired; it's not bad, but the density and chewiness of the Gyu Tan takes away from the experience.

One of the daily specials arrives next: Hiza Nankotsu no Karaage (Fried Chicken Leg Cartilage).

There's a good crispy, crunchy quality to Yakyudori's version: The breading is lightly seasoned (thankfully not over-salted), and the Chicken Cartilage turns out to be nicely fried with minimal retention of oil. This is definitely one of the better versions of leg/knee Cartilage that I've had in So Cal, but after having the leaner, purer Yagen Nankotsu (from the Chicken Breast area) from Yakitori Bincho and Torihei, the more common dark meat portion seems too excessive at times.

In our haste to try out the enticing selection of skewers, I realized that we forgot to order drinks. :) Yakyudori offers up a large selection of Sake (19 different types), along with the excellent Koshihikari Echigo Beer. While Koshihikari Echigo was tempting, we decided to go with the safe, smooth Suigei sake from Kochi, Japan.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Nabe-san's style of cooking is with their simple Tebasaki (Chicken Wing) skewers.

Maybe it was Nabe-san just getting warmed up, or the Binchotan not being fully ready yet, but from this point on, for the rest of the evening, the skewers were intensely smoky. The Grilled Chicken Wings here are beautifully cooked, with an almost cracklin'-like, crispy skin, giving way to great juicy Chicken meat beneath. The smoke is intense, but not offputting. Excellent.

Their humorously named Bakudan (literally "Bomb") is an entire head of Garlic, roasted until the insides are a delicious, soft, creamy consistency. A great accompaniment with any of the other skewers.

Next up is Tsukune (Chicken Meat Ball). Chef Masashi serves up their Tsukune dipped in their homemade Tare Sauce. It's very moist, but a touch too sweet and too much on the pasty side. I prefer the Tsukune from Yakitori Bincho, Torihei and especially the Tsukune specialist in Kyoto over this version.

Sasami (Chicken Breast) skewers are always a challenging prospect at many Yakitori restaurants. The inherent leanness in Breast meat can result in a dried out skewer if not cooked with the utmost care. Unfortunately, Yakyudori's Ume Sasami (Chicken Breast with Japanese Plum) falters in that way. It's not bad, but merely average in execution, with a very dry Chicken Breast.

Nabe-san recovers nicely with the next dish: Momo (Chicken Thigh) skewers. Very juicy, but intensely smoky (almost uncomfortably so), it's a loud, smack-you-in-the-face type of skewer and standout in its flavor perspective. I prefer the less smoky, Jidori (All-Natural Chicken) version at Yakitori Bincho, but this is quite good. :)

Our Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard) skewers arrive within seconds of the previous dish: These are tiny, bite-sized portions, but taste rather flat. It lacks the vibrancy of the upper echelon, but are better than the norm.

At this point, it seems that the kitchen was too overwhelmed because they had forgotten our last 7 dishes; after waiting another 15-20 minutes with nothing arriving, we asked our waitress about the last 7 dishes, and she checked in and came back to apologize, saying they would start on them right away.

The next dish was something I was looking forward to from the moment I saw it on the menu: P Toro (Pork Toro (from the Neck)). :) Fatty, delicious Pork cooked on skewers? What's not to like? :) Imagine my surprise when the P Toro arrives drenched in their Jikasei Tare (Homemade Tare Sauce). I keep an open mind, but after taking the first bite... the Pork is completely overpowered by the sweet Tare Sauce. It's also extremely smoky at this point (strangely so), and the texture of the Pork is too tough and chewy. It's not something I'd order again.

Nabe-san's Negima (Chicken Thigh with Green Onions) rebounds nicely: A wonderfully succulent version, with a strong smokiness (intense, but still enjoyable).

Like Nabe-san's other Nagoya-style offering, their Chikin Miso Katsu (Fried Chicken Cutlet with Miso) is another outstanding creation! :) A beautiful, perfectly fried skewer of Chicken topped with their own homemade Nagoya-style Miso results in a pure, focused, salty, savory morsel of crispy fried goodness! (^_^) Outstanding!

The next dish is another reason to go to Yakyudori (for its variety): Akahimo (Chicken Vein) skewers!

I've never had Chicken Vein before, but I'm glad I tried it: Each bite is a great textural exploration, occupying a space between a good Ika (Squid) and a juicy Momo (Chicken Thigh). The flavors are also really intense, slightly organ-y, smoky, and yet still retaining enough of the more normal Chicken essence one might hope for.

Their Buta Bara (listed simply as "Pork") skewer, on the other hand, is a dry, overly chewy, salty version of the classic Buta Bara.

Surprisingly, one of the highlights of the evening comes from their Tezukuri Atsuage (Homemade Fried Tofu).

There's an extremely fresh Tofu and Soy flavor that comes shining through. The outer crust is so spot-on, and so seductive in its play with a crispiness and a satisfying firmness, that it's one of the best Atsuage renditions in Southern California. Wonderful!

Our final skewer arrives quickly after: Shiitake (Shiitake Mushroom) skewer topped with Bonito Flakes. It turns out to be a solid version of Shiitake, beautifully fragrant, if a bit overcooked (too dry in some pieces).

We finish up with their Tori Zousui (Japanese Rice Porridge). Unfortunately, it's a fairly typical version of a Zousui, chunky, salty and very straightforward. But for a Yakitori restaurant, it's understandable (i.e., it's not their specialty). It's a far cry from the I-would-drive-from-anywhere-in-Cali, legendary Zousui of Yakitori Bincho (which is made-from-scratch, made when you order(!)), but it's perfectly fine if you happen to crave it at the end of a meal here. :)

Service is just fine for a classic Yakitori restaurant, with a few waitresses taking care of the whole restaurant; just flag them down if you need anything. The service is friendly, energetic and eager-to-please. :) Prices are fair ranging from $3 - $8 per dish. With Sake, we averaged ~$45 per person (including tax and generous tip).

Yakitori Yakyudori is a wonderful surprise in the Hillcrest area: Chef Masashi Nabe is a true Yakitori Master, creating grilled skewers that are generally intensely smoky with big flavors. His Nagoya heritage comes through with his amazing Nagoya-fu Tebakara (Nagoya-style Fried Chicken Wings) and Chikin Miso Katsu (Fried Chicken Cutlet Skewers with Homemade Nagoya Miso), both worth visiting the restaurant for, along with many other classic Yakitori offerings.

While there are some misses, Yakitori Yakyudori falls squarely in the upper echelon of Yakitori specialists in Southern California, behind Yakitori Bincho in comparative dishes, but ahead of Torihei in the flavor department (although Chef Masataka Hirai's grill work is superior in some ways, their lack of Japanese Binchotan and flavor infusions at times has them fall just short of Yakyudori). But at the end of the day, like the best restaurants you come across, Yakitori Yakyudori exudes the passion and love and care of the chef in the kitchen, and that's all you can hope for. Highly recommended.

*** Rating: 8.8 (out of 10.0) ***

Yakitori Yakyudori
3739 6th Avenue, #B
San Diego, CA 92103
Tel: (619) 692-4189

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 6:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. (Last Call at 12:30 a.m.)

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Yakitori Yakyudori
3739 6th Ave, San Diego, CA 92103

 
 
 
 
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    1. Amazing review- made me take a new look at a place I love, and made me want to stop in for some gizzards 'n beer later.

      A heads-up: Nabe-san takes Friday, Saturday and Mondays off. I really noticed a difference when he wasn't around. The food is still very good, but Nabe has a sense of pacing- your skewers arrive regularly but with an interval in between, in some order that I sense is based on richness. This tends to disappear when he's not around and you're stuck at the table only a few minutes into your meal with, like, five plates of yakitori.

      Cheers!

      1 Reply
      1. re: SaltyRaisins

        Hi SaltyRaisins,

        Thank you. :) I envy you for having such a nice local place; makes me all the more eager to return to visit my friends near Hillcrest more often. (^_~)

        Thanks for the info on Nabe-san. When we went, Nabe-san was there and was very gracious. The restaurant just seemed really busy was all.

      2. Great review, exilekiss! We're headed to San Diego in the next couple of weeks, and this rec along with Cafe Chloe is perfect. We have three boys (6, 4, and 3), would this be an appropriate place to take them along as well?

        3 Replies
        1. re: attran99

          Hi attran99,

          Thanks. (^_^) Oh, I think you'll like Yakitori Yakyudori a lot. :) Yes, when we went, there was one couple with a baby. It's a boisterous, lively spot, very casual, so I don't think there'd be any problems. :)

          For Cafe Chloe, I think if you were seated at one of their outside patio tables that might work (unless your children were well-behaved). Chloe seems to be a more intimate spot at night, but not sure what it's like during the day / lunch. They also have a "back room" area that was empty when we went. Perhaps you might get a table there that might work. Let me know if you end up visiting either place. :)

          1. re: exilekiss

            Thanks, exilekiss! I think Cafe Chloe will be a date night with just me and the hubby! Seems like it might be a better choice than Oceanaire. I'll totally let you know what we thought when we get back.

            1. re: attran99

              Hi attran99,

              Nice. :) I ended up visiting a couple other restaurants in the area while I was visiting my friends. I should have something posted on them soon. Enjoy your vacation. :)

        2. OMG...ahead of Torihei in the flavour department?!? Here's my SD to do list now:

          1. Yakitori Yakyudori
          2. Market
          3. Kaito

          14 Replies
          1. re: OCAnn

            Just curious - why Market ? It is a decent restaurant but I think there are better restaurants in SD for this type of high-end french/california type of cuisine) e.g. Cavaillon, Arterra, 9-10. (There are number of other restaurants I haven't visited yet but heard from friends that they are very good, e.g. Kitchen 1540, George's, 1500 Ocean)

            1. re: honkman

              Handful of Market (Del Mar) reviews on CH from last year looked great...maybe it was the case of "the new kid on the block". Has there been a downhill trend? Sounds like I'll need to do a thorough search & review before I make my choice. The other two nicer restaurants I've been to are Pamplemousse Grill & Georges; liked them both. If you care to share your top 3 in SD, I'd love to know!

              1. re: OCAnn

                Over the last 1-2 years I go now very often for finer dining to LA (most of the higher end places in SD serve often at least for me and my wife boring food with average service. For us fine dining is about very creative and unusual food , e.g. Providence, Hatfields, Animal etc. but other people might have different expectation for such type of restaurants and depending on that you might like Market which was nicely executed but not creative) and go more to the lower cost places in SD and so as a consequence as I wrote there are a few places I have yet to try and which sound interesting and others might comment on them as good choices for you. In addition some interesting placesl ike Blanca and El Biz just lost their chefs and it might not be the best time to go there.
                I would recommend Cavaillon which has a very nice 5 course tasting menu. I also had good food at Arterra even though the last visit was about 1.5 years ago.

                1. re: honkman

                  Thank you. We chow mostly in OC and make it out to LA & SD every now and then. While I agree that LA has better eats than SD, we have to be in SD on occasion and so we look for good eats there.

                  I'll put the ones you & steve mentioned on my list. Thanks guys!

              2. re: honkman

                Interesting that you would say that Market isn't creative but then suggest Cavaillon in the same breath. Cavaillon is very well executed but I'm not sure I would consider it to be interesting or creative. Good, but not really a destination restaurant in my opinion. I've found my food at Market to be more interesting albeit sometimes less consistent, but never have I not been pleased. I suppose I might be a sucker for the freshness and Chino produce. Right now I do hold Kitchen 1540 above both Market and Cavaillon though.

                1. re: DougOLis

                  That's the interesting part of any food discussion board that everybody has a different taste and preferences. (If we would all like the same restaurants we would never get a reservation :). I agree that Cavaillon is not the most creative restaurant you will find anywhere but we had a few tasting menus recently there and found all of them very interesting (they also made everytime spontanous changes to the tasting menus so that we always had new dishes to try).
                  And Kitchen 1540 is on my to-do list for SD.

                  1. re: honkman

                    I would put Kitchen 1540 under Market on my list. Granted, this is based on one dinner, but what I found good were the charcuterie and cheese plate (very little kitchen prep required--just find a good source for both and you're good to go) and dessert. Unfortunately, I can't remember exactly what I had for the 1st course but there were fiddlehead ferns and some other seasonal greens. I thought it was overall "ok," but nothing that knocked my socks off. My entree was a whole grilled branzino w/ shishito peppers and the little Japanese mushrooms that are not enoki and are served w/ udon (the name is escaping me right now). I love branzino and it was well-executed, but the overall flavor profile was a little flat and bland. It lacked the layering of subtle flavors that Addison has or a balanced "punch" of fresh flavors that I prefer if it's not understated cooking. Even a hit of kosher salt didn't quite do the trick.

                    I can't recall what I had for dessert, although the memory is it was decent.

                    Their prices were fair, especially for the Del Mar area. If I was staying at L'Auberge, I'd go there any day over Sbicca's. If someone picked it for dinner, I'd happily oblige. However, I still think Market easily outdid the meal I had at Kitchen 1540.

              3. re: OCAnn

                Yeah, I would say Yakitori Yakyudori and Kaito are great choices.

                Market, not so sure.

                1. re: stevewag23

                  What would you recommend in its place? And maybe a suggestion for north county too.

                  1. re: OCAnn

                    Not a big north county fan.

                    Cafe Chloe or Jaynes Gastropub would be cool.

                    1. re: OCAnn

                      I wouldn't have any problem leaving Market on your list. I think it's your best option for N. County Coastal, short of Addison in Carmel Valley. Cavaillon is also very good, although it's about 10 minutes inland from the 5 freeway.

                      Been to Blanca twice in the past month and it's still decent, although I had badly shucked oysters for one meal. I think they were shucked ahead of time (big no-no) and were a little shriveled and lacking liquor. Their black truffle popcorn is to die for!

                      1. re: daantaat

                        That's good to know (re Market). Thanks for your input!

                        1. re: OCAnn

                          I think if you do Kitchen 1540 you have to request the Chef's tasting menu in advance. In my opinion the regular menu though simple and useing great ingedients is a bit tame.

                  2. re: OCAnn

                    Hi OCAnn,

                    Yah, but note that Torihei is very close to it, and Torihei also has the amazing Kyoto-style Oden Menu that Yakyudori doesn't have (and the wonderful premium Sansho... Mmm... :). But that being said, Yakyudori is wonderful and a must-visit if you're in the area. :)

                  3. exilekiss: A great review on my favorite YY! Glad you gave focus to Nabe-chan in your review, as the man makes the restaurant in more ways than one.

                    Just wanted to add that if you ever find yourself back in S.D. and give YY another go, be sure to look out for their Gyu Horumon. In YY's case they use the term to specifically identify beef intestines, as opposed to offal in general. They used to do it as a rare special on slow nights due to the extensive prep required, but I see that they now have it much more frequently, though still only as a special's board item.

                    I feel it's by far their best item, even when pitted against their already heavy-hitting lineup full of very well-excecuted offerings. But it must only be ordered when Nabe-chan's at the grill; it makes a huge difference!

                    http://www.flickr.com/photos/akatayam...

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: cgfan

                      Hi cgfan,

                      Thanks for the rec on the Gyu Horumon. It looks delicious and is definitely a rarity at many Kushiyaki places here in LA. Can't wait to go back. :)

                      1. re: exilekiss

                        Update! This just in (Tues, Oct 6 '09)...

                        Just received a text from Nabe-san (Yakitori Yakyudori) that the Gyu Horumon will be on the specials board this week. No indication on how long it is expected to last, but for those who have been wanting to try it, it's finally in!

                        My advice: get there before me! :-)

                        -----
                        Yakitori Yakyudori
                        3739 6th Ave, San Diego, CA 92103

                        1. re: cgfan

                          Hi cgfan,

                          Thanks for the update. :) I'll see if I can stop by for a visit this week or next. :)

                            1. re: stevewag23

                              It was good enough to order Okawari (seconds), something that I almost never do. (It's practically a rule of mine...)

                              http://www.flickr.com/photos/akatayam...

                              As good as it was, the second one was even better. Like no other item on their menu the Horumon comes closest to delivering on the taste experience of pure Umami. In this context the taste of any easily identifiable protein would only be a distraction.

                              I think that's why I like it so much... Whereas with the other items on the menu there's an incredibly harmonious pairing of Umami along with the familiar taste of the protein item, with the Horumon one can essentially enjoy a nearly abstract taste experience.

                              Though it's essentially offal, in my mind the taste experience transcends that of the more common protein items and deserves its place on a level above, not below, that of chicken or beef.