Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Ribatei: No pretension here, just satisfying yakitori

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

When it comes to dining out in Yokohama, few visitors venture beyond the bustling blocks of Chinatown or the bland, sanitized architecture of the Minato Mirai 21 (“Port Future”) district on Tokyo Bay. But to really feel the pulse of the city, to get a taste of how the locals like to eat, you need to venture deeper.

Turn your back on the waterfront and instead direct your feet into the low-rise backstreets of Noge and the adjoining neighborhoods of Fukutomicho and Yoshidamachi. Certainly you’ll find plenty that’s gaudy and tawdry, and more than a few establishments devoted to the joys of the “water trade.” But, in among them, there’s some excellent eating to be found, especially at Ribatei.

Dating from the years immediately after World War II — the name is a play on the word “liberty” — this unprepossessing yakitori specialist is approaching 70 years old. The interior is as plain as the facade. But none of this deters the folks who make their way all the way from Tokyo for a spot at the restaurant’s four small tables or at the modest counter by the open kitchen.

Third-generation owner-chef Tomotsugu Sakakibara has been grilling yakitori for 20 years now and it shows in his relaxed demeanor and the way he tends the skewers. He sources his chicken from Miyazaki Prefecture and, while they’re not jidori (name-brand) birds, he coaxes immensely satisfying flavor from even the most humdrum parts.

You don’t need to order anything apart from the drinks: Sakakibara serves you omakase (“chef’s selection”) style, a stick or two at a time, until you’ve had your fill or your allotted time is up. The exact order will vary, but he may well start you off with kawa (chicken skin), then tempt you with seseri (neck meat) and follow up with hatsu (heart), sunagimo (gizzard) or saezuri (windpipe).

All are grilled to just the right degree of medium rare, infused with a gentle underlying smokiness from the binchōtan charcoal he uses.

He breaks the flow with tidbits of vegetables: ginkgo nuts, a whole bell pepper with chicken broth inside, shiitake mushroom, pickles. You may also get skewers of beef tongue, or tsukune (balls of minced chicken) interspersed with chunks of negi (Welsh onion). And without fail, he will serve his signature tebasaki, chicken wings that are deep-fried in karaage style to keep them soft and juicy.

And, when you’re ready to round off the evening, one of the kitchen crew will rustle up bowls of the house special, curry-seasoned chāhan (fried rice). It’s an idiosyncratic flourish, reflecting Ribatei’s humble origins and unpretentious style.

Be warned: This place is popular and you’ll need to reserve in advance. In addition, the neighborhood is probably too gritty for a first date or a smart business dinner. For yakitori in a more polished setting, try the newly opened Chiba (GM Yokohama Bashamichi Bldg, 3F, 5-72-1 Tokiwacho, Yokohama; 045-225-8484), where the young grill master is an alumnus of Ribatei’s sister restaurant, Midori.

Yakitori omakase (tasting menu) from around ¥5,000; Japanese menu

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