Succulent pieces of skewered chicken, dipped in barbecue sauce, grilled to perfection over hot charcoal, then washed down with a cold beer - it's easy to see the appeal of yakitori after a hard day's work. Not surprisingly, yakitori-ya (yakitori restaurants and stands) are popular early-evening gathering places, typically filled with office workers stopping for snacks before the train ride home.
Yakitori-ya themselves are far from fancy; often they'll consist of just five or six stools pushed up against a counter, Clouds of aromatic smoke waft off the grill and into the street to lure hungry passersby. Even at the nicer places, the emphasis isn't on the decor; they're more interested in providing good food and a convivial, relaxed atmosphere in which to enjoy eating.
Yakitori-ya can often be recognized by small red lanterns out front, with the character for tori, or bird (鳥), or the syllabic spelling of 'yakitori' (やきとり). Another clue to finding a yakitori-ya is the clouds of fragrant smoke coming from the vent.
Many top-rate yakitori-ya advertise that they serve jidori-heirloom native breeds of chicken or hybrids with at least fifty percent of their DNA from native breeds. Jidori birds are usually local to a particular part of Japan (the term literally means "regional bird"), and they're generally raised in free-range conditions, so the meat is more flavorful and often chewier in texture than battery-raised chickens. The three most famous regional birds are Cochin from Nagoya, Satsuma-dori from Kyushu and Hinaidori from Akita. Shamo is a breed of game hen sometimes found on upscale yakitori menus, and other chicken alternatives might include quail, guinea fowl and duck, depending on the season.
Two other factors that set a yakitori-ya apart from its competitors are the ingredients in the tare (the sauce used to baste the chicken) and the quality of the charcoal used for grilling. Hard, aromatic charcoal from Wakayama Prefecture produces the best results, better than cheaper charcoals and far superior to gas or electric grills.
Although other foods are served, chicken is the mainstay of yakitori-ya. Morsels of chicken are either skewered by themselves or interspersed with negi (leek) or other vegetables. Other chicken dishes include chicken wings, tender white-meat chicken breast fillets (sasami), dark-meat chicken-leg chunks, chicken livers and other organs, ground-chicken meatballs (tsukune), and chicken skin. There are also other items, such as shiitake mushrooms, green peppers, ginkgo nuts, and quail eggs.
Yakitori-ya fare mostly comes on skewers, and it's customary to order at least two skewers of any particular item, although this varies by shop. Before it's grilled, the food is dipped into either a sweetish soy-based sauce (tare) or salt (shio) - sometimes you get a choice, but often one or the other is the specialty of the shop. You can also sprinkle your chicken with shichimi (a mixture of red pepper and six other spices). Invariably you'll find a handy receptacle on the counter where you can deposit your used skewers.
While the more down-to-earth shops and outdoor stands stick to the basics, more upscale yakitori-ya might also serve special dishes like grilled quail, duck and other game birds (with or without skewers), liver pate, egg dishes, and chicken sashimi and tataki (chicken served raw and semi-cooked). A note about raw chicken-while there are no guarantees in life, it might help to know that shops serving raw chicken typically source their meat from small farms that raise and process their birds in hygienic environments so their meat can be safely eaten raw.
Beer is the most common drink to go with yakitori; some shops also have wine and/or sake lists. After you've had enough chicken, chazuke (a soupy mixture of tea and rice) is a very filling way to top off the meal; another common option is yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls).
Specialty yakitori-ya are a subset of izakaya, and many ordinary izakaya also serve some grilled chicken alongside a much wider menu. Some shops double up and serve both yakitori and yakiton (grilled pork on skewers).