Wednesday, July 25, 2012

L.A. HAVENS - KokeKokko

Yakitori master Tomohiro Sakata at the KokeKokko grill



203 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles (Little Tokyo)

The phrase 'kokekokko' is the Japanese equivalent of 'cock-a-doodle-doo,' the sound of a rooster crowing. Yakitori master Tomohiro Sakata couldn't have chosen a more fitting name for his restaurant, which opened in Little Tokyo over 20 years ago. I love this place so much, I get giddy when I know we're going there for our meat-meal night.

Japanese yakitori are chicken pieces that are skewered and grilled, and they're something that Tomo-san has certainly perfected. He is the heart and soul of the place, where he's always surrounded by clouds of smoke at the helm of the grill in the center of the restaurant. He is gruff and abrupt with his staff, but occasionally smiles as he downs a glass of beer given to him by a customer. He really treasures his regular customers, giving the most loyal of them special black plates with their names printed on top to eat on every time they visit.

When you walk in, besides Chef Tomo in the center of a u-shaped bar area, you'll notice the bamboo decor and various pieces of original artwork depicting him standing at the grill. As soon as you're seated, you're given a hot towel and an amuse-bouche of whatever they have on hand for the day: macaroni salad, marinated daikon with ground chicken, etc.

Breast meat skewer
Tomo-san only uses Jidori chickens, then grills the parts over bincho-tan (white charcoal) that is imported from Japan. You can pretty much try any part of a chicken at KokeKokko – from the traditionally American breast, thigh and wing to liver, gizzard and heart.

Each diner must order at least five skewers (ranging from $2.50 to $3), or you can order their half-course (5 skewers/$16.50) and full-course (10 skewers/$27.50) meals that come with salad and soup (simple but delicious chicken broth). My favorite skewers are the chicken meatballs (so juicy!), breast (served with a dollop of wasabi on top) and hearts dipped in the house-made karashi (spiced mustard). There are bowls of shichimi togarashi (chili flakes and other spices) and sansho (ground sichuan pepper) on each table to sprinkle onto the chicken as well. Diners can also order off-menu parts like neck meat, cartilage and tail (ahem, butt) meat.

Chicken gyoza and soboro
There are several side dishes that I make sure to order too. I am addicted to the soboro (a bowl of rice covered with nori, quail egg and ground chicken stir fried with soy, mirin, sake and ginger). Their chicken gyoza and smoked chicken are amazing, but nothing compares to the off-menu ramen, which is served in the absolutely perfect chicken broth that I mentioned earlier. I actually prefer this simple bowl of ramen to the heavy pork broth served at Daikokuya.

Be warned that the KokeKokko experience takes time. Each skewer is prepared to order, and the waitstaff is usually very busy since the restaurant fills up as soon as it opens. They're always courteous, though – just slow to bring your check at the end of the evening. But this never deters us from returning to the restaurant again and again – at least once a month!

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