Monday, December 5, 2011

Head to Tail Yakitori at Kokekokko

Oh the poor maligned chicken in my life. The bird has been beaten down to bastard status in my culinary oeuvre over the past decade. It’s partly because I am just so freaked out by the steroids and slaughterhouse conditions of so much of the mainstream meat manufacturing machine but it’s also because I hardly step a toe into a regular old grocery store anymore to pick up a package of breasts or thighs, organic or not. I tend to eat meat that is grown wherever I live, or prepared organically, or offered on ice blocks from the sea at my weekly farmer’s market, or served exotically in some foodie joint, and chicken tends to be the farthest down on this chain of late. 

That is until I encountered my first Yakitori experience this past Saturday night. Yakitori, or “grilled chicken”, is the reason Kokekokko in the middle of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo exists. A restaurant centered on the bird, that the owners supposedly raise themselves, where every single part of the chicken is offered up for food in the most bare bones, simply salted and peppered, skewer-grilled style. I was happy to try it out because I hadn’t had chicken that bare minimum and blessed in years. 

An impromptu visit this past weekend at nine o’clock on a Saturday night found the place relatively packed but we were lucky to score two stool seats at the bar encountered by a heaping glass of Otokoyama sake and jazz piping in over the audio system in the rustic wooden room. It was poured generously until overflowing into a pool on the plate it sat within.

I loved watching the three guys grilling up the chicken in front of us over smoking coals while taking breaks to cheers each other with glasses of beer bought by joyous regular patrons. The place has a reputation of serving its loyals on black plates with passion while treating the newbie’s with skepticism in a kind of hierarchy where you have to earn your royal treatment by becoming a familiar fan. But we were treated well, maybe because my dinner companion has eaten there before, or maybe because we adventurously ordered one of everything from the menu, including the ugly bits. Prices are good, only around $2.50 for a skewer but you have to order at least five things per person to qualify for eating there.

We ordered skewers of chicken wrapped okra, zucchini, wing, thigh, gizzard, gizzard skin, heart, liver, quail egg, and meatball. A small bowl of ground chicken slaw was placed before us alongside two tiny clay pots of spices. One held shichimi togarashi, or “seven flavor chili pepper.” The other had a green powdery mix of what I think was green onions mixed with some other savory spice. Also, a dab of yellow karashi, or Japanese mustard, was swathed upon our plates.

My favorite skewer was the liver, served without adornment so that the plump, dense, smokiness of the meat shone through. Perfect on its own without any of the dips needed.

A surprising treat was the gizzards, not at all too crunchy or gristly, as I would have imagined, but flavorful little nuggets to chew on between the other stuff. All the chicken parts skewers were great and flavorful and it was fun deciding what spice to put on each.

I will stick with the chicken parts on more occasions as the veggies were just basic bits cooked right but not too lavish. The quail eggs were good cooked, maybe with a little more of a hardened rind of skin then regular eggs, but I will continue to prefer my quail eggs shot raw at the end of sushi, where they shine in their sensual liquid best.

I have never had chicken hearts but tried them and ended up really liking them. A little more jelly-like than the livers, and smaller, but with a nice inner density that alludes to the livers, they were almost sweet little cardinal gems to pop in the mouth, again with no condiment decorum. 

My dining companion who has a cantankerous funny bone waited until the end of the chicken parade to announce that the quarters could double as a salmonella flowering bed, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to go back. Or stop us from continuing on to order a skewer of crunchy chicken tail when prompted by a neighborly diner who could tell we were equally adventurous. I think of Anthony Bourdain squatting in Alaska over a whale freshly butchered with a family of ten bloody mouthed blubber eating Aleutians and feel proud that I can carry on in the same tradition in my own backyard restaurant full of raw chicken parts cooked and served up literally in front of my face. 

At the end of the meal, we were asked if we wanted dessert. Dessert consisted of a small white bowl of steamed sticky rice topped with a pool of mellow, brown curry. It was a nice little sweet moment at the end of a bare bones meat meal.

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