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Turning Japanese 

At this tiny spot, tasty skewered treats are served with a vintage soundtrack.

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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I've never been a big fan of eating contests. The sight of mass gluttony, especially in rapid beat-the-clock fashion, is rather revolting, in both visual and philosophical terms. It vitiates everything I hold dear about the art of eating, which, in addition to savoring the taste of what you're enjoying, includes interrupting busy days with an interlude of relaxation, allowing you to converse with friends and family and rise from the table refreshed as well as nourished.

That said, the one time I actually participated in an eating contest — knowing full well that my chances of winning were nil — was at a kind of restaurant where I'd frequently eaten without ever feeling full. I couldn't resist the chance to run riot through the menu for free.

It was a yakitori house, a style of Japanese cooking featuring different parts of the chicken (everything but the feathers, some have said), skewered and grilled. Yakitori spots often feature bar seating overlooking the grill, and are not unlike sushi joints. Order what appeals to you, watch it being prepared, and wash it down with sake, beer, or soju (an alcohol distilled from rice with a higher alcoholic content than sake). To encourage thirstiness, yakitori is usually quite salty — brushed with tare sauce (a blend of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar) or just heavily salted. Many yakitori houses have expanded their menus to include other meats, fish, and vegetables. And it's only a small jump to add another popular Japanese food preparation, kushi katsu: skewered, deep-fried cutlet.

Halu, a tiny spot on Eighth Avenue in the Inner Richmond is newish (six months in business) and offers a wide array of yakitori and kushi katsu, augmented by interesting appetizers, tangy salads, and big bowls of ramen. It's just around the corner from the excellent shopping street of Clement; I arranged to meet a couple of friends there for an early dinner on a chilly night after some holiday shopping at Kamei Restaurant Supply and Green Apple Books.

Halu doesn't take reservations, and we'd been warned that the place was small, so we showed up at the opening time of 5 p.m. but the sign still read CLOSED. We checked out the jade, Peking glass, and scarves at the combination jewelry and hair salon next door until the sign was flipped over 10 minutes later.

Inside, all was warm and welcoming. The restaurant was bigger than I expected, with around half a dozen tables arranged in groups of two, four, and six plus four additional seats at the bar, behind which was the grill and kitchen. The place was as neat as a pin and charmingly decorated for the holiday season, with miniature woven gold wire Christmas trees at each table and a plump stuffed snowman surveying the room from a perch near the kitchen. But the overwhelming decorative motif was music: The pale-green walls were covered with framed posters and photographs, many featuring the Beatles; a drum kit emblazoned with their name overlooked the room from a catwalk above.

The soundtrack matched the walls: Bouncy '60s rock 'n' roll and pop contributed an irresistible beat that encouraged us to over-order (though only slightly). The yakitori and kushi katsu skewers come two to an order, priced between $2 and $5. We thought we'd try both bargain-priced dinners, which come with steamed rice, miso soup, and spring salad, at $16.50 for the yakitori deluxe (seven assorted skewers) and $13.50 for the kushi katsu (six assorted skewers). But when we found out that the dinners are chef's choice, we decided to go à la carte. The small bottle of chilled sake ($13.50) we ordered from Halu's short but fairly sophisticated list was quickly brought to the table with small and elegant chilled glass cups.

We waited what seemed like quite a while as our food was prepared, even for the daikon salad ($5), which was batons of daikon floating in a vinegary dressing augmented with green onions, daikon sprouts, and minced radish. But we enjoyed sipping our sake and listening to the music, which included Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Fleetwood Mac, as well as lots of the Beatles. A bowl of edamame was brought out (on the menu at $2.50), which, when we said we hadn't ordered it, we were told was a gift to accompany our sake.

The first round of yakitori featured chicken hearts ($3.50), chicken gizzards ($3.50), what they call flat steak ($4.50), and short ribs ($5), as well as grilled shrimp ($4.50). If you're scared of chicken innards, here is the place to get over your fear. At other yakitori spots, I've gotten whole hearts and gizzards, quite chewy and unmistakably innards, but here the organs are sliced thin, brushed with tare, and much easier to enjoy just for their taste, if you're at all squeamish. We found the beef skewers actually gamier than the innards. All were quite salty — I found them pleasantly so. We also got bowls of fluffy, steaming-hot rice ($1.50) and a little covered bowl of good miso soup ($2).

A graceful woven-handled basket was brought to the table, full of chunks of kara age ($6), lightly battered fried chicken, as easy to eat as potato chips and, oddly, hardly salted at all. A fat bowl of chasu-men ramen — noodles in broth with bamboo shoots, green onions, corn, diced red pepper, hard-boiled egg, and extra roast pork ($8.50, a dollar more than the basic roast pork ramen) — featured nicely chewy noodles and thick slices of superb pork, floating in a broth that tasted slightly off to two of the three of us.

The second round of skewers included pork with onion ($4), eringi (king trumpet) mushrooms ($3), and our favorites of the yakitori: smoky grilled asparagus ($3) and four fat scallops wound with bacon ($4.50). It also included a special that demands to be ordered: morsels of moist chicken thigh separated by fragrant, minty shiso leaves ($4.50).

We were slowing down considerably. At first, my heart sank when the plate of kushi katsu we'd ordered came to the table: the skewers of beef with green onion ($4), pork with onion ($4), and shrimp ($4.50) looked much more substantial than the yakitori because of their panko breading. But one bite of the shrimp revived our appetites: This was the best, lightest, most seductive shrimp tempura ever! The other offerings were equally knowingly fried — heavier and more filling than the yakitori, but amazingly greaseless. Enjoy them as they come, or dip them in an accompanying dark, sweet, thick tonkatsu sauce.

Still, one of my companions, who'd seemed to be enjoying his meal, surprised me by saying he thought the food wasn't up to his healthy-eating standards: "It's too salty, and I don't like fried foods." But he loved hanging there and chatting with proprietor Shigemi Komiyama, ex-drummer for Hot Tuna, the side band of Jefferson Airplane members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, and current drummer for the Shi-Tones, whose posters adorn the walls.

The place couldn't be cozier and homier, exuding a feeling of family thanks to the presence of Shigemi's wife, Mimi, and a couple of daughterly servers. We lingered over free cups of tea, seduced by the soundtrack, which sounded nostalgic and hip at the same time. "We should ask them to burn us a copy of their mix," the youngest among us said, who wasn't even born when the Beatles stopped recording. Not a bad idea, I thought. But listening to it wouldn't be quite the same without Halu's superb skewered tidbits, which are incontestably delicious.

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Meredith Brody

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