Japan's new kid in old Chinatown

Asian hipsters, and a trickle of "Caucasian yuppies," have discovered its small-plates style.

20080127_inq_mgrick27z-d
Chief sushi chef Yasuhiko Tasaka creates an artful arrangement of small bites. Yakitori platter, left, offers pork, salmon, chicken, mushroom - to name a few.

On the understated block of 11th Street south of Vine, at the far eastern edge of Chinatown, you will find the doors of a hip Japanese diner called Yakitori Boy finally open well into the night.

It might be easier to find, actually, if it followed the Japanese practice of small-plate (japas, they're calling them here) and sake establishments of its ilk by hanging a trademark red lantern outside.

But soon enough, I suspect, it will be on the radar, its initial wave of young Asians already swelling with what one manager, with a certain bemusement, referred to as "Caucasian yuppies."

It melds the fast-food variety of a dim sum joint with the boozy night-out swagger of a karaoke bar, which is to say it's a new kid in a rather staid Chinatown, made to order for the girls from the office, grad students from Drexel, and best of all, a cheap, late-night beer and glistening breakfast on a stick - bacon-wrapped quail eggs, $2.25.

In that regard, Yakitori Boy - specializing in the flame-grilled skewers called yakitori - is a fish delightfully out of water, a rare taste of Japanese snack food in a Chinatown that has seen only a smattering of Burmese, Malaysian, and Vietnamese eateries flesh out the long march of often-prosaic Chinese offerings.

The blocky hanging lamps remind me of the wooden cubes that serve as cups in old-school sake bars. The aspect - black-painted exposed metal rafters, booths tucked in the dark at the back of the first-floor room, aqua-lit counter bar (awaiting its liquor license earlier this month) - has a stage-set quality, the spotlight on the sushi bar up front.

Upstairs is a trendy lounge, and running off it along narrow corridors are rent-by-the-hour, soundproof karaoke rooms for six to 20 wailers, every one of them rented out one recent weekend evening.

The sushi, suffice to say, is decent enough, though I found the rolls a bit heavy on the rice. (Now I stick with the nigiri, raw fish draped over tight wads of sticky rice.)

But it is the grills visible just beyond the sushi bar that are the main event, makeshift now, their gas flames licking from lava rock. These are the yakitori grills - yaki (grilled) tori (bird) - upon which skewered meats are cooked at red-lantern pubs known as izakaya.

In fact, parts of chicken are the stars; skewers of the liver, the heart, the rubbery gizzard, the wing, the thigh (most from $1.50 to $2), and my favorite, a tender, moist chicken meatball brushed with sweet, fruity yakitori sauce.

But that's just the beginning; split pieces of corn on the cob (brushed with a buttery soy sauce) are offered, and soy-brushed rice balls, and Japanese smelt, and salty short rib, and the odd-looking but startlingly succulent and meaty salmon neck, which is the fish's collar.

I say "makeshift" for the grill, because, owner Kenji Kurimoto says, a custom-built yakitori rig is coming from Japan, and, in weeks, he'll be grilling over traditional charcoal, not gas.

It looks simple enough, though I am told that the timing, particular saucings, and the temperature - not too hot - of the grill are tricky. (On opening night a smoky residue could be detected on the glass counter shields, a sign the flame was temporarily burning too hot.)

Kurimoto, who owns several fast-food teriyaki-sushi stalls in Princeton and in the Oxford Valley and Cherry Hill Malls, emigrated from a suburb of Tokyo 30 years ago, working first as a chef for the Japanese steakhouse Benihana. He later opened Yanagi, since closed, in Haddonfield.

Why Chinatown? Several alumni from his ventures are Chinese and are now partners with him; one owns the building on 11th Street.

In a city where tempura, teriyaki and sushi are old news, who wouldn't try Yakitori Boy?


Yakitori Boy

211 N. 11th St.

215-923-8088

www.yakitoriboy-japas.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.