You have probably eaten a fair amount of grilled chicken in your life. But unless you’ve sat at the counter at a traditional Japanese yakitori-ya, you probably haven’t seen the grilling of chicken parts elevated to its own kind of art form. It’s a practice punctuated by plumes of binchotan-fueled smoke, in which the crisp-edged, earthy chicken heart and the fatty, cartilaginous tail are given the same pride of place as the breast and wing.
Open since April in Temescal, Hina Yakitori is one of a handful of serious yakitori restaurants in the East Bay, and it might be the best of the bunch. Almost certainly it is the most single-minded in its focus on chicken.
Co-owner Tommy Cleary didn’t exactly take a traditional path to yakitori chefdom. He had an entire first career as a DJ and producer for rap legend Kool Keith. When the music money started to dry up, Cleary applied for a job as a server at the original Piedmont Avenue location of B-Dama, an izakaya that Chikara Ono had just opened. As luck would have it, Ono was short-staffed and decided, on a whim, to put him in charge of the yakitori station, even though his only cooking experience was a few years as a prep cook back in college.
Cleary said he burned a lot of chicken during those early days. But he also became obsessed with yakitori, which he found oddly similar to DJing, in terms of the importance of timing and the many hours of prep work that go into a “show” that opens at 5:45 every night. He wound up spending a year as an apprentice at one of Japan’s top yakitori spots — Tokyo’s legendary Tori+Salon — putting in six fifteen-hour days a week for no pay. Back in the States, he worked the grill at Berkeley’s Ippuku for two years before he felt like he was ready to open his own place.
Part of what makes Hina so appealing is that it operates outside of the restaurant-industry hype machine, thanks in part to the somewhat unusual circumstances of its opening: Owner Jonathan Moon briefly turned Kushido, the unsuccessful yakitori restaurant that first occupied the location, into a high-end Asian fusion spot before eventually reverting back to his original yakitori concept. The fact that the new chef had this Ippuku/B-Dama/actual-Tokyo pedigree seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Whatever the reason, Hina still feels like a secret, undiscovered hideaway. (The feeling is accentuated by the fact that no one ever seems to pick up the phone.)
But the most striking thing about Hina is how Japanese the place feels — the sleek minimalism of the decor, the slow-burning bincho (Japanese white oak) charcoal that fires the grill, and the kitchen’s singularity of purpose. This is a restaurant that serves every single part of the chicken and little else besides that. It isn’t the kind of all-purpose Japanese grill that often passes for a yakitori joint in the US — the kind where savvy restaurateurs sneak big-ticket items like sushi and wagyu beef onto the menu.
Cleary, who is half-Japanese, said he marveled at how much more sophisticated the high-end yakitori restaurants in Japan were in terms of the artistry and precision that went into each skewer. At Hina, he and fellow chef Steven Kakihara break down a set number of free-range birds from Pitman Farms each day. Much of the difference between greatness and mediocrity comes down to the knifework. For the shoniku, or thigh skewers, Cleary cuts the thigh in such a way that each bite-size piece holds a shapely convex curve — a far cry from the misshapen lumps you so often get. In many cases, the knifework has a direct bearing on the way the skewer tastes. For instance, he cuts the breast so that your first bite is of a particularly juicy part of the chicken’s underarm — a delightful surprise if you’re expecting the breast’s typical dryness.
Hina is a restaurant that sweats these kinds of details. The sori maki, or thigh oyster, has a reputation as the most succulent morsel on the entire bird, but Cleary takes it a step further by removing the oysters from the leg in such a way that each nugget winds up perfectly enrobed in crispy skin. The liver was served blood-red on the inside, rarer than I can recall ever eating it, so that it had some of the richness and the soft tenderness of seared foie gras and none of the chalky texture of overcooked liver. And Cleary said he suspects he’s the only yakitori chef in the area who forms each oblong tsukune, or chicken meatball, skewer to order while the meat is still raw. The result is an exquisitely juicy, crisp-edged meatball, made even more luxurious by the accompanying soy sauce-based tare (or dipping sauce), into which you mix a raw egg yolk.
Even the mushroom skewers, both the shiitake and king trumpet, were a cut above — intensely smoky, and meatier and juicier than expected.
When the grilling is done at this level, no additional sauces are necessary. Aside from that meatball, all the skewers are served naked, sprinkled with only salt (a mix of fleur de sel, French gray sea salt, and a Japanese sea salt), with a wedge of lemon or lime on the side for squeezing.
There is an appealing simplicity to a meal where most of the choices center on which particular cuts of chicken you’d like the chef to grill. Meanwhile, Kakihara oversees the small selection of appetizers and other non-yakitori dishes, many of which are themselves chicken-centric. One of the exceptions was a sweet late-season tomato salad that consisted of diced tomatoes tossed in a blend of three different vinegars. It made for a bright, well-balanced counterpoint to the salty grilled meats. It goes without saying that cold Japanese beer also serves this role well. So, too, did a plate of tortellini-shaped wontons served cold in a mouth-puckering ponzu sauce. Here, the pleasures were mainly textural — slippery at the edges, and dense and toothsome in the middle, with just a little bit of scrap meat from the chickens to make up the filling.
Chicken figured more prominently in a particularly smooth and delicate version of pâté, though the pickled turnip greens that accompanied it were tasty and interesting enough to eat on their own. And, of course, the chicken was the outright star of the tori nanban — a batter-fried breast, topped outrageously with a chunky, egg salad-like housemade tartar sauce. It was good enough to merit a place in any conversation about the best fried chicken dishes in Oakland.
It is perhaps appropriate that a restaurant that specializes in serving every last bit of a chicken would also be notable for its skillful egg preparation. This can be best seen in several of the “finishing” rice dishes that are meant to fill you up if you’re still hungry at the end of the meal. Hina serves what is perhaps the best oyako don, or chicken-and-egg (“mother and child”) rice bowl, that I can recall eating — a soupy, savory version whose notable qualities included the smokiness of the grilled thigh scraps and, most significantly, the fact that the Kakihara only cooked the egg white until it was jiggly and just barely set, adding the raw yolk to the bowl separately at the very end.
The tamakake gohan, typically just a bowl of rice that you crack an egg over, made use of a similar innovation. Here, the egg whites were whipped until they were meringue-like and airy-light, and added to bowl along with bonito flakes, a dashi-based sauce, and that raw yolk, which sat nestled atop the whole thing like a bright-orange crown. Both rice dishes come with a bowl of rich, scallion-y chicken broth on the side — all those bones put to good use.
The food at Hina is delicious, more or less without exception. But much of why I loved the place had to do with the other sensory pleasures that come with sitting at the counter to watch the chefs do their thing in the smoke-filled haze of the kitchen — fiddling with the vents on the grill or flipping pieces of fried chicken over with a pair of chopsticks. It’s a scene that could as easily take place in a back alley in Tokyo as an upscale-ish restaurant in Oakland.
You can’t help but eat with a greater sense of concentration at a place like this, as the chef rushes each skewer over while it’s still hot enough to burn your mouth. You’ll eat it too quickly anyway. And then you’ll start thinking about ordering another round.