Mikame Yakitori: Happiness on Happy Road

Mikame Yakitori: Happiness on Happy Road

I am a Yakitorian.  It is my made-up word for a connoisseur of the Japanese art of grilling skewers of chicken parts.  I have, on many occasions, devoured a meal of yakitori at one restaurant and then ended the night having a little yakitori “nightcap” at a different spot.  I have always preferred plentiful appetizers to the domineering and dictatorial entree of Western restaurants.  So, Yakitori suits my style: Numerous skewers and small dishes arriving at a leisurely pace.  Plenty of breaks allowing for a smoke, a drink, a joke, an appreciation of what has been eaten and anticipation for what is to come.  A good Yakitori takes a single element (chicken) and creates a complex orchestra through artful butchering, severe quality control, a keen sense of seasoning and a masterful touch with glowing coals of charcoal.   Delicious Yakitori gathers strength through self-imposed limitations.  For the most part, Yakitori is also very very inexpensive.  True, there are high-end, expensive places with Michelin stars, but I am happy to stick to the rough gems.

As a Yakitorian, I feel I have developed a keen radar for good yakitori.  So it was that I stumbled upon Mikame right off of Oyama’s Happy Road.  Happy Road, which I have written about previously, is a kilometer-long covered arcade built in the 1970s.  It is a bustling place, filled with grocers, pachinko parlors, dollar stores, butcher shops, old-fashioned sweets shops and numerous restaurants.  It is sadly, like many of the older arcades, living on limited time.  Plans are in the works to knock the whole thing down in Tokyo’s never-ending quest to modernize what, only decades before, had been the height of modernity.   The first time I spotted Mikame, it just had that glow, a certain buzz from the interior that called to me.  I popped my head in and was hit by the smoky perfume of grilling chickens; a roomful of happy people bedecked in the joyful clamor of laughter, the clink of glasses and that vibrant hum of contentment. One of the chefs apologized and told me they were full up; he declined to tell me how long the wait would be, saying that his customers tended to eat a lot.  I vowed to return.

A few weeks later I showed up with a friend who is a New York transplant like me.  We had to wait for a bit in the perfumed air outside.  Shortly, two red-cheeked women exited; they smiled at us, beckoning us inside with a certain glee as if welcoming us to a secret club  We took a seat at the far end of the counter.  The place was abuzz: a solo diner read anime on his phone while a dish of hot pot bubbled before him; a few couples on dates shared skewers, flirting and giggling as they poured each other drinks.  In the backroom, a group of elders were holed up at a table with a big bottle of shochu and all the mixers — their infectious laughs and sense of familiarity signified a class reunion of sorts.   Mikame is all dark wood. Hand-drawn menu signs crowd most of the wall space.  Bottles of shochu and sake, reserved for regular customers, line the shelves (the system is you buy a bottle and if you don’t finish it, they will keep it for your next visit).  At the end of the counter, the chef/owner, mid-forties, hair fashionably cut, kept one eye on the grill, the other vigilantly watching customers as they ate, reading their reactions to every bite.  Drinks came fast, cold beer in a chilled glass with a complimentary dish of cabbage leaves with spicy miso.  Our server was, apparently, the chef’s wife.  She was gracious, attuned to the timing of her husband — dishes, drink refills moved around the room like clockwork.

Besides yakitori, Mikame’s menu is expansive, seasonally driven, specials changing every day.  We started with a salad of chrysanthemum leaves with miso dressing and threads of marinated chicken breast. Then, the Yakitori began to arrive.   First up was bonjiri (chicken tail aka “bishop’s nose”), one of my favorite pieces of yakitori and frequently my measuring stick to determine the quality of a restaurant. Cooked ahead of time or badly prepared, bonjiri can be a gummy mess.  At Mikame, it came out a deeply flavored nugget of savory chicken fat and crisp skin.  The master butchered the bonjiri a bit higher up the spine than is usual so that it contains a bit of soft, chicken bone.    Tebbasaki (chicken wing) was masterfully seasoned, the salt intensified the char of the grill and the moistness of the meat.  The crackle of the chicken-skin gave way to a rendered layer of golden fat — the sign of a serious chicken raised far from a factory. Mikame serves chickeny chickens, deep with flavor, perched on the edge of gaminess.  Liver was cooked to perfection, the texture firm and licked with a smoky sauce that melded with the mineral tang.  Our server told us that Tsukene (chicken meatball) is a specialty.  It is a marvel of the form — moist, infused with the flavors of charcoal, hints of ginger, egg yolk and garlic. As I finished I caught the eye of the chef studying my reactions with a hint of satisfaction.

We were in the groove of Mikame — a raft bobbing along a current of shared joy.  Another lemon sour! What is that dish of tempura those two girls are eating with such undiluted happiness? Negi with matcha salt!  Yes, we want that!  An entire half-onion came to us, poached to a buttery consistency in a miso broth that was like the stripped-down ideal of French onion soup.  A plate of grilled himono (salt cured) fish was so generous in size and so succulent that it could have easily been a full and satisfying meal.  We nabbed the last order of fried potato which came in the form of french fries covered with a crisp, golden hash brown. More drinks, more laughing, more discussion of how much we loved Tokyo.  We pointed out to each other how the unbridled joy of Mikame’s  inter-generational mix of customers had no New York dining equivalent. We were full, happy, verging on drunk — three hours at the counter having passed in no time at all.  The bill was cheap, less than $100 for countless drinks and a plethora of food.

As we left, I noticed an udon dish that looked tempting, a tsukene nestled in the belly of a grilled pepper, a grilled rice ball…A puff of fragrant smoke and a chorus of thank-yous from the staff escaped with us as we slid the door open.  A waiting couple lit up with smiles, as I — newly minted as a Mikame Yakitorian — welcomed them inside, already planning my return.

(Post-script:  On the way home, I passed a certain alley-way in Kami-Itabashi that can often tempt me.  There is a tiny Yakitori spot there whose smoke dances into the night sky.  True to my skewered heart, I walked in for one last bite.)

 

 

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