One of my favorite ways to unwind after a stressful day in the city is to hunker down in my local yakitori (grilled chicken) joint with a pint of beer and some deep-fried cheese on a stick. Not quite the quintessential picture of a vegetarian? Maybe so, but there’s something about the dingy, low-key atmosphere and grilled-to-order service at a yakitori restaurant that just can’t be beat. And since yakitori restaurants are everywhere, you should be able to find a local favorite wherever you live.
One of mine is Torishin (3-33-13 Aoto, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo; 050-5861-7976; www.torishin.jp). Aoto Station is an express stop on the Keisei Line, five minutes by train east of Oshiage (home to Skytree).
At first, I’ll admit, I was intimidated. Setting foot in any yakitori restaurant — which cater primarily to carnivorous folk — seems comically inappropriate for one who has grown up entirely vegetarian and has no interest whatsoever in meat. Worse, Torishin is packed most nights with boisterous after-work crowds, and customers are nudged right up against one another at shared tables.
However, a world of unexpected vegetarian delights adorns the modest menu slats hung on the tattered walls: piman (bell peppers), negi (scallions), hiyashi (chilled) tomato, yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls). I order them all, defying my crate-perched brethren by ordering not a single meat dish. Unlike at most non-veggie restaurants, it is not necessary to request special treatment in the form of niku nashi (no meat) versions of dishes, volleying ideas with the kitchen staff to see if they might just be able to remove the ham or fish or whatever the offending item might be. No, it’s quite simple here: What you see is what you get.
What I get is a cornucopia of skewered and grilled vegetables and a dipping sauce. Many yakitori restaurants, in addition to serving simple skewered vegetables, also offer a number of breaded, deep-fried choices (kushi-age), and the prize dish I save for last: cheese-fry, also known as cheese-age (deep-fried cheese). One juicy bite of battered, greasy goodness is enough to melt away all my cares. Washing it down with a frothy draught beer, I am at peace, even in the midst of meat lovers.
Another local favorite is Torihiro (3-32-9 Aoto, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo; 03-3838-3878). Just a block away from Torishin, it’s slightly off the main throughway north of Aoto Station. With its bigger layout and less busy staff, I quite like the atmosphere here. There is plenty of nuance of easy-going shitamachi (old downtown) Tokyo, but enough quietude and privacy to balance it out.
Torihiro boasts a slightly wider selection of vegetarian dishes. I feast on shiitake, negi and nasu (eggplant), though be warned that the latter comes with flakes of katsuobushi (smoked dried fish) by default. The restaurant also serves a decent yaki-udon (thick stir-fried noodles) that satisfies my hunger, but I can’t leave until I’ve had — you guessed it — cheese-age, or pari-pari cheese as it’s called here. It’s a tad pricey compared with the main fare, at ¥450 for four cigar-sized rolls, but who can put a price on a crispy outer layer of dumpling dough and a soft, gooey core? Per my usual fashion, I couple this melty mouthful with a cold one, and call it a day.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.facebook.com/anandajacobs.