Across cultures, barbecue has always been a social food. Whether you’re grilling hamburgers in the backyard for the big game or carefully flipping cuts of Korean bulgogi over a tabletop grill, barbecue is as much of an event as much as it is a culinary tradition. You don’t often grill alone, after all, or without a healthy dose of laughter and conversation.
Yakitori has captivated food lovers for that exact reason. Commonly served in Japan as a street food snack or in the cramped booths of a dim izakaya, these charcoal-grilled skewers of chicken are meant to be enjoyed as a casual, social affair. (Yakitori translates to “grilled chicken,” while kushiyaki is the general term for grilled and skewered meats and vegetables. Many restaurants use the word yakitori as a stand-in for kushiyaki.)
The experience of eating yakitori is inextricable from its classic bar setting, where guests can wind down over the clamor of animated chatter and clinking glasses of shochu or sake. But in the COVID-19 era, East Bay yakitori chefs have had to adjust to a reality where a key part of that formula is missing.
Yakitori was about being together; not during the pandemic
“Ippuku was all about being together, having fun times,” said Masa Sugawara, the general manager at Ippuku in downtown Berkeley. “So the pandemic made me [feel] really lost.”
Since it opened in 2010, Ippuku has been Berkeley’s destination for those in search of the Japanese bar experience. The restaurant features low Japanese-style tables, rustic decor, and most importantly, the opportunity to eat meticulously prepared, piping-hot meat skewers moments after they’ve been taken off the grill.
Takeout was never really part of the business model, Sugawara said. But when the shelter-in-place order was announced in March, he knew that Ippuku had to make major changes to survive.
Like many Japanese restaurants at the time, Ippuku jumped on the bento box train. It introduced a $15 bento for takeout, which featured popular items like yakitori and crab croquettes. The concept was to create “Ippuku in a box,” Sugawara said, but issues with sourcing the usual seasonal ingredients led to the addition of new items like siu mai and pickled vegetables. While some customers enjoyed the affordable pricing, Sugawara felt that the concept change was inauthentic.
“It didn’t feel like Ippuku,” he said. “Once it’s in a bento box, it loses the magic. So even though it’s mostly the same ingredients and same great produce, it didn’t have that magic to it.”
Ippuku also introduced $15 chicken katsu sandwiches, which featured a deep-fried chicken cutlet between two slices of fluffy Acme bread. (See Sugawara’s quirky homemade promotional video, complete with his original vocals.) But sales were inconsistent, and it was difficult to make a profit because of the cost of high-quality bread. When the restaurant reopened for patio dining in mid-July, the bentos and sandwiches were quickly discontinued in favor of the classic yakitori menu.
“We realized that what guests expect here is what they’re used to: yakitori and shochu,” said Sugawara. “So we just decided to put the focus back on what we used to do here, what we’ve been doing [for] over 10 years.”
He estimates that around 65% of the menu is now available for dine-in and takeout, although supply chain and pricing issues have made it difficult to source high-end ingredients like Miyazaki wagyu beef. Customers now have the choice of patio seating or indoor dining at a limited capacity. Business still hasn’t been the best — the usual wait time of 1-2 hours has dwindled down to near zero — but now that customers are back, that classic Ippuku “magic” is returning too.
“It’s kind of [started] feeling like Ippuku again, even [with] social distancing and sanitizing,” Sugawara said. “It’s just the vibe. The sound of guests, the sound of plates, the sound of walking on the floor — all those sounds make it nice. Even though people are outside, they’re still producing all that energy.”
An opportunity to pursue a dream business
The pandemic may have signified the end of the road for many restaurant owners, but for Kay Kim, it was a chance to finally pursue his dream of opening an izakaya-style restaurant.
Izza, located on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, held its soft opening on Oct. 6. Kim describes the restaurant as a “fusion-style izakaya” that serves yakitori, ramen, Japanese sandwiches and fusion dishes like uni scallop brioche toast and soy sauce-marinated salmon prosciutto. Izza also offers 20 different sake options and eight local and Japanese beers.
The restaurant is a culmination of Kim’s 10 years of experience working at fusion Korean restaurants like Ohgane in Alameda and Bowl’d Korean Rice Bar in Albany. His love affair with Japanese food traces back to his days as a student at UC Berkeley, but it never quite felt like the right time to take the plunge — that is, until COVID-19 brought down rent prices in Oakland.
When the restaurant space at Kang Nam Pho went up for lease, he jumped on the chance to open his first restaurant.
“It was an opportunity for me to do what I’ve always dreamed of,” Kim said. “Sometimes, people only know sushi rolls and bento dishes. But izakaya, it’s more about everyday food. We have food that Japanese people eat at home, too.” That includes dishes like dashimaki tamago, a tender and silky, six-layer rolled egg dish infused with dashi stock.
Opening well into the pandemic meant that Kim had plenty of time to prepare a spacious outdoor dining area complete with festive lights, heat lamps and speakers. As of Izza’s grand opening on Oct. 26, indoor dining is now available at a limited capacity.
“Amazingly, [business is] actually better than I thought it would be. We’re not even doing any advertisements at the moment,” Kim said. “We didn’t even change the signage yet, so it’s the old restaurant’s sign. But people are still coming to eat.”
Despite the social distancing and mask guidelines, Kim said that the izakaya vibe that he loves is still alive at Izza.
“Customers still want to talk to us and know about the food and sake, so it’s still the same,” he said.
The pandemic is a time for change — even success
For Yuko Takahashi and Kaito Akimoto, co-owners of Berkeley-based yakitori pop-up Tori Man, the pandemic was a chance to pivot to a successful delivery and catering business.
Takahashi and Akimoto bring their yakitori expertise from San Francisco’s acclaimed Rintaro, where Takahashi was a server and Akimoto was a yakitori chef. The pop-up started on a whim in 2017, and the pair have been selling their locally sourced meat and vegetable skewers twice a month ever since.
Akimoto handles the grilling on a binchotan (Japanese charcoal) grill, with a trusty wooden fan in hand to adjust the flame just right. Once the fragrant smell of grilled meat draws crowds in, Takahashi bounces around to explain the various skewer options to curious customers. (Half the fun, she said, comes from introducing the uninitiated to the wonders of chicken parts like heart and knee.)
When the pandemic hit and Tori Man’s regular pop-up gigs were canceled, they launched a yakitori bento delivery service that sold out nearly every week.
For $25 each, customers could pick between two yakitori bentos, each with a hearty serving of rice, seaweed, soft-boiled egg, chicken or egg soboro, and edamame or pickled radish. Up to 45 bentos were personally delivered straight to customers’ doors every weekend.
Takahashi and Akimoto have since transitioned to catering small private parties in the Bay Area, a service that they said has been more popular than ever.
“When the pandemic started, people [were] afraid to go out. But I think after summertime people [were] tired of being isolated,” Takahashi told me. “So they wanted to see people and get together with close friends.”
They’ve been catering more private parties than they did even before the pandemic, but the duo’s commitment to sourcing high quality, local and sustainable ingredients hasn’t changed. Neither has their goal of “making the atmosphere exactly like you’re in Japan” by donning traditional Japanese wear and decorating venues with lanterns and lights.
But, as Takahashi said, she and Akimoto are just happy to be sharing their food and stories again with customers. Even if it’s at a bit of distance.
“It’s more fun because we get to grill for the customers, we get to talk to people and also enjoy the atmosphere of the party,” she said. “That’s what we like to do — we want to grill in front of people.”
Sheila Tran is a freelance journalist covering culture and food in the San Francisco Bay Area.