Yakitori: who can resist salty, smoky bits of grilled chicken on a stick? Well, maybe a vegetarian could, but for the rest of us, it is likely irresistible. I suppose most of us have found a local yakitori shop to park at for a nibble on warm summer evenings or chilly winter nights alike. If you haven’t found yours yet, look around for their red lanterns hanging by the door and don’t hold back.
If you’re in need of a bite of grilled chicken in Maebashi, try Torikomachi. The décor has been classed up compared to most neighborhood chicken shops (no red lanterns here), but they have the usual menu of skewered goodness… and more. In addition to the Maebashi shop, you can find Torikomachi in Isesaki, Tokyo, and other prefectures around Japan. But don’t let the fact that they’re nationwide make you feel like this is just some soulless chicken chain—you can feel some local pride when you see the sign next to the grill that proudly proclaims that they serve Joshu jidori, which is Gunma-raised free-range chicken.
If you come with a group you can usually get a table, but on busy nights, singles and couples usually sit at the bar. If you sit on the far side from the door you can watch the grill-master at work.
If you’re feeling hungry and wanting to avoid picking and choosing from the Japanese-only menu, you can select one of the two set courses (for two) at the back of the menu. The “Ume” course includes chopped cabbage, jidori tsukune, one sumi-yaki chicken half to share, yaki-onigiri, tebasaki to yasai nikomi and vanilla ice cream or chicken soup. The “Take” course is all of the same items, except that you get an order of the hitsumabushi rice dish instead of the yaki-onigiri. The set courses are a good variety, but it’s certainly a lot of food, so if you’re not starving, you might want to create your own course from the menu.
If you’re ordering a-la-carte, here’s what I’d recommend: order one stick of the jidori tsukune for each person in your group. The jidori tsukune is a chicken meatball that’s been slowly grilled and then served with a sweet soy sauce and a raw egg yolk that you can use to paint on another layer of richness on top of the sauce. It’s like a yakitori take on “oyako.”
Sumi-yaki jidori half
While you’re at it, order the sumi-yaki jidori half or whole. Order it right when you arrive because it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to cook. This is one of the best roast chickens that I’ve ever had. It’s slow-grilled over charcoal. The skin is delightfully crispy and seasoned with salt and garlic. The chicken itself is pretty tasty too.
From the grill (clockwise from top left): yaki-onigiri, chicken liver, hanpen-cheese, aspara-maki
After you order your sumi-yaki chicken you have some time to check out the rest of the menu. There is a great selection of yakitori and kushi-yaki skewers. If you want to start out easy, try a chicken or negima (chicken and onion) skewer. Even if you don’t usually eat organ meats, try the sunagimo (gizzards) or liver, which are nicely browned, smoky tasting around the edges, and tender in the center. You might be surprised by how good they are. Plus, the skewers are small and cheap, so you don’t have much to lose if you decide you don’t like them. I also recommend the hampen-cheese skewers (steamed fish cake with melted cheese), aspara-maki, and meat-stuffed shiitake mushrooms. There’s also a full-page list of flavored tsukune, but I think that their classic jidori tsukune is the best.
The yaki-onigiri is browned and crunchy on the outside and brushed with a salty-sweet sauce. The charcoal grill attaches a smoky flavor to it as well. You might be thinking, “oh, it’s just a grilled rice ball,” but trust me, it’s a darn good grilled rice ball.
One of the yakitori items that shouldn’t be missed is the sasami. These are chunks of the chicken tender that are seared on the outside but rare in the middle. They’re juicy and delicious. Of course I would never eat raw chicken back in America, but somehow eating local free-rangers a bit on the rare side at Torikomachi seems like a good idea to me. There are a few different flavors, but my favorite is the ume-jiso sasami.
A close-up view of ume-jiso sasami
Side-dishes (clockwise from top left): tebasaki to yasai nikomi, marinated okra (otoshi), hitsumabushi , torikomachi salad
If you’re still hungry after all that, why not try some delicious side dishes? You will get an otoshi (starter) when you sit down: it’s a small side dish of vegetables or sometimes spicy konnyaku. The best side dish on the menu (I think so anyways) is the tebasaki to yasai nikomi. It’s a stew made with long-simmered chicken wings in a miso broth with vegetables. The chicken wings are amazingly tender and the broth is thick and rich. It’s fantastic! The torikomachi salad is made with slices of barely seared chicken with Italian dressing. It’s alright, and when you’re eating so much chicken it’s nice to have some greens. If you didn’t get the yaki-onigiri and you’re craving some rice, the hitsumabushi is made with crispy chicken skin, slices of chicken, takuan, green onions and chili threads. First you stir it up and eat some, then you can add some wasabi and pour the hot chicken broth on top and eat it like rice porridge.
Torikomachi is open every day except Sunday. There is another Gunma location in Isesaki.