Oak & Coal and the California Roll
Several decades ago, I’d give friends an unknown (to them) rectangular, flat, blackish green strips of what looked liked it may or may not be edible. This mystery food was my version of Fear Factor, but it was merely pieces of “nori” or seaweed formed into sheets much like the look of paper.
Back in the 80’s, you’d only see the bougie “Princess” in the movie, the Breakfast Club eating this “exotic” food for her lunch. Nowadays “the Brain,” “the Basket Case,” “the Criminal,” and even “the Athlete” have most likely had or tried nori which is primarily due to the availability of sushi being almost everywhere in California and elsewhere.
Sushi was not always an American staple, and maybe that only all came about because the nori which is major ingredient in the California roll is hidden to make it more appealing to noobs.
If that is the catalyst for the popularity of sushi, Oak & Coal is the “California roll” of Japanese inspired yakitori-ya’s aka places that grill up chicken/meat on a stick with alcohol and drinking. I make that comparison because Oak & Coal has created a yakitori-ya (ya = “restaurant”) ideally suited for people who have never had yakitori, and little do they know, they’re experiencing it with the nori hidden.
Seventeenth Street has been changing for some time with the turnover of old businesses. They have given way to new spots like Tabu Shabu (same owner as Oak & Coal), Pit Fire Pizza, Temakira, Sidecar Donuts, Burger Lounge, to the current renovation of the over five decades old Pierce Street Annex into a 1900’s style country club.
“Yakitori” might sound exotic and foreign like the “Bolshoi theater in Russia does, but after a few Russian language lessons after trying to learn all the bad words from my Russian friend, I eventually learned that “bolshoi” just meant “big” or “grand.” If you think that name when translated sounds lackluster, you’ll be disappointed to know that “yakitori” just means “yaki” = grilled and “tori” = chicken.
Knowing the definitions now, I feel a lot of the magic in the world has faded away which is why I won’t ruin it all for you by translating “mount Midoriyama” from the show American Ninja Warrior.
BTW, the original Japanese version, SASUKE is a whole lot better because the American show just takes itself way too seriously.
Trying new foods or getting into anything new has an entry curve. For some, you may have had a childhood friend that exposed you to these things early on. If not, you have your new BFF “Oak & Coal” to make it easy for you, and you’d almost never know that it was a Japanese inspired cuisine at all.
Not to say it isn’t like a yakitori-ya because if you ever decide to walk into a yakitori-ya in Japan, you’ll realize they got all the core attributes of a yakitori-ya down. The main things they got right, is that this has to be the type of spot where a Japanese salarymen (the white-collar of Japan) would want to come after work for a drink to drink themselves silly with small bites of food throughout the night (not app, main, dessert order sort of place).
If that does sound enticing, isn’t it good to know that you’ll be able to add protein on a stick to your diet versus just sammiches, burgers, and pizza.
Nothing from the store front or the name of the business would blatantly give off that the restaurant is a yakitori-ya, but once inside you’ll find chopsticks, Japanese based condiments, and a counter with an open kitchen like many yakitori-ya in Japan (a noren might be a good finishing touch).
Going into an Indian restaurant, I never know what you’re supposed to do with some of the sauces such as “mint chutney” or even knowing that it’s called “mint chutney,” or if it has mint in it (it does), or what a chutney is!? Whatever it is, I put it on my tandoori chicken, but I wasn’t sure if you’re supposed to do that till I asked my Indian friend which he says “no because the chicken is coated in masala.” Not like you can’t use it on anything you damn well please, but some sauces and seasonings go better with some types of meats than others, so here are my suggestions:
- Red stuff aka “ume,” plum (more like an apricot): recommended for pork (delicious on pork belly), or even possibly on chicken like the chicken meatballs since it’ll compliment the “shiso” (Perilla leaf) in the meatball.
- White stuff grated ninniku: I love garlic, but the only thing I could think of using it on is the chicken possibly, maybe the chicken thighs.
- Green stuff yuzu kosho: is great with a lot of things like pork, chicken, and seafood like scallops. This condiment, if it were to be marketed to the mainstream market correctly, it’d probably be up there with the popularity of Sriracha sauce.
- The tray: I don’t think I tasted it, but it must be their “tare” which is basically a teriyaki sauce – you know what to with teriyaki sauce (you put it on everything like you already do).
Other condiments not pictured:
- Sansho Pepper: a spicy peppercorn that’ll give your tongue a tingle, and you’ll want to use it on chicken.
- Shichimi togarashi: 7-spices chili pepper which includes hemp seed is used on all sorts of things if you like to spice up your food (not really spicy).
- Furikake: a seasoning which is a mixture of fish flakes, dried seaweed, and sesame seeds.
- Shio (salt): I’m adding this one because just a little on items like the beef tongue goes great just with salt.
“Grand-day” or “grand-dee”, WTF! I’m not Italian, but either is Starbucks which is from Seattle. So getting people to order in foreign languages does contribute to the experience because for some, it can be a challenge or intimidating (yea, can I get a Her-me’s wallet). Also, I doubt “small, medium, large and the all Murican size of “XXL” are marketable in Italy although we won’t know that till they open a Starbucks in Italy in 2018.
Language is also a factor when ordering in an authentic yakitori-ya in LA because they will often have things in both Japanese and English, but I’m sure even attempting to pronounce “tsukune” can be rather intimidating.
In a typical Japanese yakitori-ya, you’ll see small little papers all over the restaurant with their daily specials.
Just like a yakitori-ya where you’d mark down what you want on a sheet, Oak & Coal has a similar ordering system although with a laminated menu that you can mark up for continual reuse.
Started off with some of their Kimchi Dumplings (6 for $6) which I think they said was a combo of chicken, pork, and beef. Three types of meat were said to be in here which didn’t sound right, but maybe there was a “Lost in Translation” on my part.
Unlike popular Buffalo chicken wing spots that deep fry their frozen chicken wings, most yakitori-ya’s use fresh chicken which is grilled right in front of you. Not only is freshness important, but so is the quality of the produce and meats which Oak & Coal has carried on with the use of Mary’s free range, organic, and hormone free chicken to the use of Kurobuta (Berkshire) pork, to Snake River Farms wagyu.
Various types of yakitori are typically pre-seasoned with either two basic seasonings which are a tare (soy based glazed) or shio (salt).
We Amuuuuricans should be familiar with meat on a stick because most backyard grilling has similarities with yakitori and “shish” or “seekh kabob’s“.
The chicken meatballs are kind of like the signature style of a yakitori-ya because they’ll differ from place to place.
There are parts of a chicken that most didn’t even know that existed, or you never knew people would be eating like cartilage (nankotsu), skin (kawa), heart (hatsu), to the chicken tail (bonjiri). BTW, these aren’t all available here, and I have a hard time finding me some tail even at other yakitori-ya’s.
We didn’t get a dab of miso (soybean), but miso is really good with grilled garlic or all by itself.
And FINALLY what to do with all the skewers. Whelp, there you have it, they go right into this little cup.
EDIT (7/2/17): So one last bit that was brought up to me which is, is this cultural (mis)appropriation? I’m of course no expert, but I don’t think so at all because I don’t see it as exploitative. I think that there’s a certain level of knowledge of the culture and food that the person has to have to pull a business like this off. From what I have seen and experienced, I feel that it has the core attributes of what makes a yakitori-ya what it is, but it’s being marketed to appeal to a way wider audience. If you don’t agree or do agree, I’d like to know your thoughts either way.