In Japan, you'll find yakitori-ya spots -- places that specialize in yakitori, or skewers of chargrilled meat -- everywhere. The places are usually casual and fun, somewhat rowdy and raucus, a venue for friends to gather for an easy meal while drinking beer.
This is exactly what you'll find at Tiger Den in Chinatown. Though the initial buzz centered around the restaurant's made-from-scratch ramen, Tiger Den's robata, or charcoal grill, is currently one of the most enjoyable in the city. Pricing is also extremely reasonable, at $1.50 to $2.75 per order of two yakitori skewers.
Join us on this photo journey as we eat our way through the yakitori menu at newcomer Tiger Den.
Through the window overlooking the kitchen, we watch grill master Ming-san, who has 10 years of experience grilling in Japan, perform his craft. He prepares a set number of skewers at a time, taking care not to overcook the meat or overcrowd the grill.
Large shrimp are grilled whole with the head on, seasoned with nothing more than shio, or salt. We pick up the shrimp, which are served with half a lime, with our hands, peeling off the shells even as we lick off the salty chargrilled flavors of it. We enjoy the plump sweet flesh before sucking on the head, getting a beautiful, briny head rush. Oh, yes.
Next up, it's the pork jowl, small-cut chunks of meat with a rich, slightly gelatinous texture and a snap in the bite, reminiscent of cartilage. Seasoned with salt, it's as flavorful as pork belly without the same fattiness. We love it. It's easily one of our favorites.
A plate of beef tongue comes next, served as slices rather than on a skewer, swathed in a sesame-salt-green-onion topping that gives us a pleasant break from the salt-seasoned dishes. Each thinly sliced round is charred at the edges and bursting with flavor -- tongue absorbs the marinade so well. We take a swig of beer to wash it down. Talk about a perfect pairing.
Lamb yakitori, tender with very little gaminess to them, come with a small round dish of pale-green creamy wasabi dipping sauce. There's a mild acidity to the sauce, along with a mild kick from the horseradish-ey wasabi. The sauce would be marvelous as a salad dressing, or as a dipping sauce for other items, so we save it for later.
Chicken skin is a delicacy in many countries, and when it's served as yakitori, it is as enjoyable as popcorn and just as addictive. Though we wanted more char on it, we love how the skin has puffed up to an almost chicharrón consistency, the result crispy, airy and kind of chewy at the same time -- utterly decadent and so good.
Ah, the chicken wing. There is nothing quite like a a good chicken wing grilled on the robata, the juicy meat piping hot against chicken skin charred at the edges. They're covered in a tare glaze of mirin, soy, sake and sugar, and we pick up the hot and sticky wings with our hands, eating everything right down to the cartilage. Ask for it extra crispy.
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Chicken gizzards come sprinkled with an orange Japanese seasoning salt, the citric acid minerality of the seasoning coming alive with a squeeze of lime. The wasabi cream sauce from the lamb comes in handy; dunking a few pieces seems like a good idea, and it works swimmingly well.
And finally, chicken hearts. The conical-shaped hearts look appetizing even before the first bite, each heart threaded through the skewer in a way that resembles a pattern of beaded jewelry. The hearts have a tender chewiness, their texture very agreeable with this style of cooking. We experience another fine beer pairing.
Owner Mike Tran takes his turn at the grill station, with grill-master Ming-san looking on. He recommends that we finish off with a bowl of ramen and an order of the doughnut-hole-size pandan donuts, but honestly, the yakitori alone make an excellent meal. Think of yakitori as a type of Japanese tapa, or the equivalent of eating dim sum in the evening. Meat on a stick, on lots of small plates, to share.
Fun? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely.