Like the French, who invented a whole cuisine completed with wine, the Japanese have their own special dishes they match with beer.
Robata-yaki — little skewers of salted, charcoal-grilled meats and vegetables — cries out for crisp, flavorful Japanese draft.
Now the Bay Area has Kokko, a three-month-old robata devoted to chicken, the most beloved skewers of all. In fact, the restaurant’s onomatopoeic name mimics the call of the barnyard bird.
Though there is no robata bar, the predominantly Japanese crowd can view sexy grillers, heads encircled in blue bandanas, working precisely in a partially open kitchen.
The low-ceilinged, wood-lined space used to be a taqueria but has been transformed into a cozy, cheerful Japanese pub. Customers sit at small wooden tables separated by cotton banners. Young, bubbly Japanese waitresses collect order forms — each table checks off the skewers it wants — and take drink and other dish orders.
They bring the food dish by dish, which gives the kitchen time to grill each skewer perfectly, and gives patrons plenty of opportunity to drink pitchers of Asahi or Sapporo, as hip-hop pulses on the sound system.
Get your pencils. Here are my favorite skewers, starting, of course, with chicken: moist thigh ($2.20); tender, meaty heart ($2.40); sweet, crisp-edged chicken liver brushed with traditional yakitori sauce of sake, sugar, soy and mirin ($2.20); bouncy salted gizzard ($2.20). Tsukune — chicken meatballs — are too bland, and chicken skin too flaccid. Some may want breast, but not me.
Since every person can easily eat the equivalent of six or eight skewers, even two diners can put together a meal with lots of variety if they share.
Cylindrical hunks of Japanese white leek ($2.20) have a delightful charcoal blackened skin and succulent interior.
Grilled gingko nuts ($1.20) the size of small marbles are soft, starchy and a little bitter. I like them. Many don’t.
But everyone adores floppy, mild, grilled shishito peppers ($2), under a smoky snowfall of shaved bonito flakes.
A skewer of soft, creamy-yoked, hard boiled quail eggs ($2) is rubbed with spicy hot mustard paste that picks up the flavor of the fire. They remind me of deviled eggs.
Rare grilled beef tongue ($2.70) evokes steak, as does duck breast ($3), both meaty and full of umami.
The kitchen prepares other marvelous chicken dishes. I defy anyone to make crisper, juicier, deep-fried chicken nuggets, called karaage ($6.95). Weirdo that I am (I have to force myself not to eat my nails), I am addicted to deep-fried chicken cartilage, nankotu karaage ($6.50), which is softly crunchy inside and crisply crunchy out.
I always end with a covered lacquered bowl of Kokko’s oyako don ($8.95), succulent boneless chicken, still runny egg and lots of onion, steamed over rice in sweet, savory broth. It’s one of the best versions I’ve ever had.
As a starter, consider a big skewer of creamy Japanese eggplant dengaku, slathered with sweet, dark miso sauce ($5.95) with fire licked-skin and soft unctuous interior. A salad of shaved daikon ribbons in tart plum dressing, looks alive with waving bonito shavings ($5.95).
For me, a glass of sweet plum wine with ice ($4.50), like Japanese soda pop, goes almost as well with robata as Japanese draft ($4.25 per glass). After dinner, I walk out practically clucking with contentment.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 509 Second Ave., San Mateo
Contact: (650) 401-7008
Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays; 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $2 to $8.95
Recommended dishes: Chicken thigh, liver and heart skewers, chicken karaage, oyako don, leek, quail egg and beef tongue skewers
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
I happen to have four chickens living in my backyard — two Buff Orpingtons, Odette and Odile, who lay brown eggs; and two Ameraucanas, Matilde and Carmen, who lay blue eggs. I raised them from 1-day-old fluff balls that lived in the bathroom under a light. Now 8 months old, these full-feathered dames with natty red combs and very big feet give me, on average, three exquisite eggs a day.
For most of these eight months I worried. I bought books, searched online, talked to egg producers at the farmers market. Then, a friend with chickens — who must have wearied of answering my urgent e-mails — sent me a subscription to Backyard Poultry ($21 for six issues), and I found my people. It turns out that my top 10 chicken questions just happen to be the top 10 chicken questions answered in the February-March issue.
Connected to a community of experts I trusted, the mysteries of egg laying and chicken behavior were explained. Good old-fashioned print journalism, bless its niche heart, saved the day.
Visit www.backyardpoultrymag.com. For help setting up your own backyard flock call Tanya Ellsworth at (415) 335-8322.
— Patricia Unterman