“I had no idea they ate so many deep-fried foods!” exclaims a friend visiting from Virginia, as she dangles a skewered avocado slice from a long wooden stick. We’re at Yu-Yu, a kushi-age restaurant in the giant Chinatown Mall, our table lined with enough empty skewers to play pick-up sticks.
There’s more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, a drum I’ve been beating ever since I became a food writer. If you doubt me, then ask Hideki Horiuchi, the man who owns an Ichiza, an izakaya (sake pub) a block down the street, what he’s trying to prove. He’s not doing ramen, our latest Japanese food craze, either.
Ichiza specializes in hot small-plate dishes meant to be enjoyed with libations such as sake, beer and wine.Kushi-age, by contrast, is a Japanese cooking form employing skewers—always wooden, never metal—panko (the delicate breadcrumbs you’ve probably had on your pork cutlet in a bowl of rice or ramen) and the meat or vegetable of your choice. The choices at Yu-Yu (named for Horiuchi’s two children), are legion.
This is a handsome place filled with wood, designed by Horiuchi himself, where form follows function to the extent that there is no wasted space. Seating is in alcoves shielded by wooden slats, or at a bright nine-seat counter, where you can watch chefs plying their trade, turning out kushi-age at dazzling speed. You’ll be served by a team of bilingual women, who will first bring you drinks such as plum wine, Asahi Dry beer, or a number of sakes, best quaffed cold, not hot.
I recommend easing into the skewers by ordering from the extensive tapas menu, as a number of the small plates here are called. One of my favorites, the unwieldy-named minced meat and mozzarella cheese cutlet, is essentially a pair of panko-crusted burgers with melted cheese oozing out of the centers. Is this addictive? Need you ask?
Fried jidori is a pile of the tastiest breaded chicken nuggets around, served with a sweet and pungent dipping sauce. Among non-fried starters, a soothing chicken-rice porridge in a ceramic bowl, garlic-laced chicken gizzards mingling with sautéed green beans, and tonjiru(miso-braised pork broth with tender root vegetables and pork belly) are standouts. Now you’re ready for a parade of kushi-age, served with various sauces on request, such as spicy mayo and curry salt, at no extra charge.
A kushi-age menu is similar to a sushi menu. You get a paper checklist with prices (all of these kushi-age are individually priced between $1.25 and $3), and you’ll specify how many of each you want, simply by writing a number in a provided space. Skewers come to the table willy-nilly in the same way sushi does at a sushi counter. We ordered bamboo shoot, bacon-wrapped asparagus, fresh mushroom, tsukune(chicken meatballs), an eccentric pork sausage, smelts and avocado, all of which came to the table with a subtle panko crust, piping hot.
I’d guess it will take the average person 10-15 skewers to leave feeling satiated. But save room for dessert. The homemade pudding is really flan like that you’d find in our Mexican restaurants, here a jiggly, ultra-caramelized take we all enjoyed. Even better is an odd-sounding green tea jelly with sweet red bean and sweet rice cake ball.
What did you expect in a place like this, a brownie sundae?
4115 Spring Mountain Rd., 220-4223. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6 p.m.-1 a.m. daily. Dinner for two, $45-$59.