On the Hunt for the Best Yakitori in the World
Sometimes called the California of Japan, Kyushu is home to some of the most amazing skewered eats, and has been for over a century.
By Tom Downey Photographs by Carol Sachs
ONE NIGHT in Fukuoka, Japan, two chefs in civilian clothes sidle up to the long, dark, polished wood counter of Yakitori Hachibei Bekkan, a restaurant where, on the other side, two uniformed chefs deftly spin, salt, and grill skewers over a charcoal grill that hisses and pops with fat and char. On the cooking side: seasoned local yakitori cooks. On the eating side: chef Matt Abergel, owner of the beloved Hong Kong yakitori restaurant Yardbird, and Katsunori Yashima, the chef-owner of this particular establishment and another nine yakitori restaurants, from Tokyo to Hawaii.
The skewers come in rapid succession: spicy cod roe, a local specialty, wrapped in lettuce and bacon. Marbled wagyu beef from nearby Miyazaki paired with a plump orange slice of uni. Chicken meatballs with a little pork mixed in, a trick Yashima learned from a Chinese chef.
“Fukuoka is the best place in the world to eat yakitori,” Yashima says. “No question. Why? Because it’s so much fun to eat yakitori here! Other places are so limited. We have everything.”
Between mouthfuls of sea urchin and the occasional cleansing bite of iced, lightly pickled local vegetables, Abergel — who’s become one of the most recognizable faces in the world of skewered food and is out with the first comprehensive English-language yakitori cookbook— concurs. He’s in town on one of the biannual trips he’s been making for the past eight years to check in with suppliers, hang with friends, and catch a few waves.
“I learned a number of lessons here, and we follow them at Yardbird,” he says. “The way you always spray each skewer with sake before grilling, the aggressive salting. But more than anything, what I take from Fukuoka is the casual, freewheeling attitude people here bring to cooking and eating yakitori.” For the Canadian-born Hong Kong expat, Fukuoka, located on the western island of Kyushu, is the ultimate happy place.
Abergel isn’t alone in his adoration. His friend Michael Malbon, owner of Frank’s Chop Shop, a barbershop in New York’s Lower East Side, opened his first overseas location in Fukuoka in 2016. Chef Gaggan Anand, whose Bangkok restaurant has won best restaurant in Asia for three years running, is planning to open a new restaurant in Fukuoka in 2021. Osaka cult restaurant Mashica, which started out as a cigarette shop by day, Italian restaurant at night, just opened its first branch here. Somehow, despite its relatively remote location in western Japan, its small population of just 1.5 million, and its low international profile, this city has become a place that people in the know want to visit, return to, and, if all goes well, move to full-time.
Abergel calls it the “California of Japan,” which indicates as much about the vibe as the geography. There’s a surfing beach he likes to hit up, which is a half hour’s drive from the city, then a leisurely bike ride through green rice paddies. The climate is uniquely suited to growing excellent organic produce. The fish market rivals its more famous Tokyo cousin, Tsukiji. And Kyushu boasts some of the best pork in the world, known as kurobuta, or black pig. All of which holds a unique appeal for Abergel.
Though skewered meats have been cooked and eaten as long as there’s been fire, it was after World War II, when the United States introduced American broiler chickens — fast-growing and inexpensive to raise — to Japan, that yakitori really took off. Technically grilled (yaki) bird (tori), in Fukuoka, unlike the rest of the Japan, the term is understood to refer to all kinds of grilled, skewered foods. And one of the places you’re most likely to find it in Fukuoka is in the same establishments that have been making it for a century and a half: yatai, or street stalls. “When I was a child,” Yashima remembers, “there were no indoor yakitori restaurants here. There were only yakitori yatai.”
As recently as a decade ago, you could find these yatai all over Japan. There were even a few near Ginza, one of Tokyo’s toniest shopping districts. But now yatai are disappearing almost entirely from the land — except in Fukuoka, where street food lives on, and yakitori is one of the main events. Each day before dusk, hundreds of people fan out across this very modern city pushing large, ancient-looking wooden carts that contain everything needed — bundled inside, strapped to their sides, and piled precariously on top — to build fully functional pop-up restaurants: seats at the chef’s counter, charcoal grills, huge pots to boil soup stock and noodles, glass cases to house raw skewers of meat, fish, and vegetables, and even sinks for washing dishes. Around sunset, guests start to filter in, sitting down to simple, often excellent, meals. The yatai are raucous, populist joints that evoke an era before Japan became so prosperous, so bourgeois. No yatai chef offers Portlandia-style details of the pigs or chickens you’re about to consume. You come to eat, drink, and hang.
After a long day — the morning at the fish market, and a dip in the ocean — with the sun hanging low in the sky, Abergel heads to a yatai on one of Fukuoka’s main boulevards. He sits down and orders a grilled sausage to go with his whiskey highball. Diners fill all ten seats at the counter, and some stand at the side, nursing glasses of wine. People stroll by, appreciating the late-night breeze, and peer over the shoulders of diners to assess whether they should join the throngs and wait for a seat. The yatai chef, occasionally pausing to wipe his brow, scrambles to cook, pour drinks, converse with his guests.
“This atmosphere is just amazing,” Abergel says, his eye already on the next plate of yakitori coming his way. “This is what it’s all about.”
Abergel and Yashima’s top five yakitori spots in Fukuoka. Most lack websites, but a quick online search surfaces the addresses:
1/ Hachibei Bekkan
1 Chome-1–9 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 812–0018
1 Chome-44 Hakozaki, Higashi Ward, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture 812–0053
810–0001 Fukuoka Prefecture, Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Unnamed Road
2 Chome-16–10 Kego, Chūō-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 810–0023
5–14 Narayamachi, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture 812–0023
About the author: Tom Downey writes about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Kyoto chefs, Barcelona private eyes — anyone whose story moves him — for a variety of magazines.