Toritama: Beak-to-tail yakitori washed down with top sake

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

There are only two fail-safe ways to get through a Tokyo heatwave summer. One is to head for the hills, or anywhere else the nights are cool. The other is to self-medicate. Sake does the trick perfectly, especially when matched with good yakitori. That calls for an evening at Toritama.

These days, this well loved yakitoriya has three branches to choose from. Each has been around long enough to have developed its own distinct character and enthusiastic following. But for many longtime Tokyo residents, it is still the original restaurant (Toritama Honkan) on the intersection between Ebisu and Shirokane that they think of, and head to, first.

Tucked in self-effacingly under an expressway overpass, and too far from the nearest station to contemplate walking there at any time of year, it is certainly not the ritziest or most convenient locale. In fact, when Toritama first opened some two decades ago, the area was so down-at-heel it felt like walking off the map. And therein lay much of its cachet: It was a place for those in the know.

It still feels like you’ve stumbled in on somewhere a bit special. Compact, intimate and often filled with smoke — from the grill, but no longer from cigarettes, which are now banished — all the seats are at the counter, giving prime views of the chefs working their magic over the glowing charcoal. But the main reason it draws devotees, and in such numbers that you can rarely walk straight in without a reservation, is the menu. Where other yakitori specialists may offer a dozen different cuts of chicken — breast, leg, tail, wing, et cetera — Toritama offers upwards of 30, including organ meats rarely found elsewhere.

Heart, skin or gizzard are not so unusual. Achilles tendon, sweetbreads (“otafuku” in Toritama’s terminology), coccyx (“hagoita“) and spleen (“azuki“) are very much so. This is cockscomb-to-tail cuisine, and the best way to sample it is to order one of the set selections (7, 10 or 12 skewers), then just sit back and see what comes.

They may not all be to your taste, but the one item that wows just about everyone is chōchin (“lantern”), the poetic name for the yolk of an unlaid egg before the eggshell has formed. Grilled in its membrane, and served with the tube of the birth canal, it is rich, creamy and memorable.

Before you get to the yakitori, there is an adventurous menu of appetizers and side dishes intended as counterpoints to the chicken. Summer standouts range from sliced chilled tomatoes and farmhouse tofu to a caprese of miso-cured mozzarella cheese and semidried tomatoes.

And, underpinning the entire evening, there is sake. Whether chilled, warm or sipped at ambient temperature, there is always an excellent selection from around the country. You’ll find wine, beer and shōchū, too. Whatever your medicine, and whatever the season, you are likely to leave Toritama in much better vigor than when you arrived.

Yakitori sets from ¥1,980; sticks from ¥200; English menu; some English spoken. Toritama’s annex is similar in size, slightly less smoky and just a minute’s walk away (03-3447-5520). There is also a larger branch in Kagurazaka that is smarter and more accessible for those who don’t speak or read Japanese (03-6457-5131).