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At Ikkaku, it’s fine to ask a chicken its age

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Ikkaku is located in a 12-story building with more bars and restaurants than I imagine there are in most towns in West Texas or West Cork. And the building is in Shinsaibashi, which probably has more places to eat and drink than all of Wyoming. This is, after all, Osaka, the city that celebrates over-indulgence with the maxim kuidaore, literally to collapse from overeating.

Ikkaku is a roast chicken restaurant. It’s a cut above other chicken joints; the servers are attired in bow ties and they take your coats and ferry them away. It’s styled more like a canteen, one that the architect Tadao Ando may approve of with its clean lines, smooth concrete walls, simple signage and the long narrow slit window that minimizes the view of traffic pouring by on the Midosuji thoroughfare.

Unlike pork or beef, Japan has an uninterrupted history of cooking and eating chicken, as it did not fall within the Buddhist prohibition of killing four-legged animals — not all creatures were created equal. Hinadori, the chick or baby bird, is by and large the nation’s favorite, the one you’re most likely to eat in restaurants or pick up in the supermarket. It’s also the overwhelming favorite at Ikkaku. But I didn’t order it — well, not immediately.

Ikkaku first opened in Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture in 1952. Osaka came much later. Since I was eating with a friend from Takamatsu, she recommended oyadori, or the adult bird. And when in Rome, or rather Osaka, in a Takamatsu-based restaurant with someone from Kagawa … Well, anyway we ordered the oyadori, breast on the bone, and waited. The waiting time for hinadori and oyadori is about 15 minutes as the bird is put through the fire, which leaves plenty of time to order (and finish) drinks and bites from the menu; we had torimeshi (chicken-rice) and clear chicken soup, which whet the appetite for more chicken.

The chicken leg — it’s more like a haunch — arrived sizzling on a silver platter in a pool of garlic-infused oil accompanied by cabbage leaves, for oil-dipping. We also got what looked to be an oversized napkin, but which turned out to be a bib. The menu provides a (needless) how-to-eat diagram: Just go with your gut and grab the bird by the bone. The skin is like crackling, and the darker flesh, especially near the bone, is tougher, but offers a more interesting and complex taste than what you get with younger birds.

I asked the manager (also from Takamatsu) to explain the differences between the hinadori and oyadori, taking into account their level of maturity. He seemed to think the difference lay with the cooks, so in the interest of fairness and overeating I ordered the hinadori. The difference (and it is apparent) reminded me of my mother’s poultry eating habits: She nearly always skipped the soft white meat for the darker parts. Now I see why — mothers know best. So my advice: At Ikkaku, go oyadori.

Across Bldg. 3F, 2-6-14 Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka; 06-6213-0817; www.ikkaku.co.jp; open lunch and dinner on weekends, dinner only weekdays; nearest stations Shinsaibashi, Namba; smoking OK, except during lunch; roast chicken dishes around ¥1,000; Japanese menu; no English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.