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Lemongrass Carnitas

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Last night we dined on some pulled pork shoulder that I made. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to serve it, but when Yuki was on her way home from work she stopped to grab some tortillas and oiala, lemongrass carnitas were born…and devoured…and still getting devoured as there is a ton of it in our fridge.

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I started this dish off the day before since flavors develop over time on braised dishes. I picked up a 4.5 lb bone-in pork shoulder, diced a tomato and half onion (shown in my little mini food processor container), three stalks of lemongrass outer leaves removed and tender middle chopped up (I reserved the tougher top portions for the braising liquid), a 2 inch piece of ginger chopped, 10 cloves of garlic chopped, the juice of 1 lime, three good pinches of sugar, about 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, and 15 or so cracks of black pepper. Everything except for the pork went into my little food processor and I turned it into a wet rub.

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I covered the pork shoulder with my marinade and let it sit in my large pot with the reserved lemongrass stalks for about an hour to let the juice start to penetrate the meat.

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Then I poured in about 1/3 cup of soy sauce, 1/4 cup of cooking sake, and then filled it with water till the liquid covered about 3/4’s of the shoulder. I brought it up to a boil then covered the pot and turned the heat to low. I let it simmer for about 6 hours. After it was done simmering I let it cool down a bit and then put it in my fridge to sit overnight.

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Yesterday afternoon I took it out of the fridge, scooped up the thin layer of fat that hardened on the surface, and took the shoulder out.

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I pulled the pork apart. Best way to do that is to just get your hands dirty. Let’s be honest here, is there anything wrong with having your hands smell like lemongrass pork? I think not. Speaking of lemongrass, I discarded the tough parts that were in the braise.

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I put the pulled pork back into the pot with the braising liquid and brought it back up to a boil.

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I let it boil down for about an hour to let a majority of the liquid evaporate. What you’re left with is a rich, flavorful heaping pile of swinealicious meat that drips down your hands as you slap it on a tortilla. Again, there’s nothing wrong with hands that smell like lemongrass pork.

I served these carnitas with cilantro, white rice, steamed bok choy, and sautéed chinese eggplant, green onion, and yellow bell pepper. Avocado would’ve been pretty good with them too. Topping them with diced tomato and onion wouldn’t be bad either.

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We had picked up some squid the other day, about a pound, that needed to be eaten before it went bad. I had always wanted to try stuffing squid and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity. Always the opportunist I went with it.

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First thing I did was make the stuffing. I picked up about a half pound of ground pork, a quarter onion diced, and minced 3 garlic cloves.

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I sautéed the onion and garlic in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil for about 7 minutes and then added in the pork. Once the pork was fully cooked, about 5 more minutes, I seasoned with salt and pepper and then let it sit for a couple of hours to cool down to room temperature.

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After getting some work done on my computer while the stuffing was cooling down I got the spaghetti sauce ready. I used a half bulb of fennel (fronds saved for garnish), a carrot diced, 3 cloves of garlic minced, a quarter onion diced, 1 can of diced tomatoes, and a quarter cup of chicken stock.

In my hot pan I poured in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and then sautéed the garlic, onion, carrot, and fennel for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat. Then I poured in the chicken stock and let it boil down for about 5 minutes before adding the tomatoes. I seasoned with salt and pepper and gave it a taste. I saw the need for a little more flavor depth so I poured in about 5 to 6 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

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Here are my little squid. I threw the tentacles into the spaghetti sauce.

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I started stuffing the bodies with the pork mixture. That was not an easy task. None of my regular spoons were small enough to fit into the squid, my utensil is too big (I wish)! So, I tried using one of Otis’ feeding spoons. That was too big too, but did get some pork stuffed in. I ended up just using my fingers, still a difficult task as the squid kept slipping out of my hand. Slippery little suckers.

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After I got ten of the squid stuffed I realized that I was short on time and had to go pick Otis up from daycare. Since I only needed three and a half servings (dinner for all three of us and lunch for Yuki) I thought that 10 was enough. So I cut the rest of the squid into rings and tossed it into the spaghetti sauce along with the rest of the pork mixture.

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To get some green into dinner I took a big handful of haricots vert and roasted them with olive oil, salt, and pepper at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes or so.

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While my noodles were cooking (I really wanted black squid ink pasta, but couldn’t find any so I used spinach spaghetti and just boiled it according to package instructions) and sauce re-heating I heated up my griddle pan to med-high, salted and peppered my squid, drizzled a little olive oil on the pan, and cooked the squid for about 4 minutes per side.

I will say, this dish was a success. It was a bit time-consuming trying to stuff those little sea aliens, but well worth it. They were soft, juicy, and very tasty. I would definitely make this, or something like it again. Actually, next time I think I’ll do a togarashi spiced squid and serve it with Japanese noodles in a dashi broth. The possibilities are endless!

Faldo de Res Pibil

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As you saw from my last post, we had Thanksgiving in Merida this year at my mom’s. Since we’re not a traditional posse, we decided not to do a traditional meal. But let’s be honest here, turkey was not on the original Thanksgiving menu, a feast that lasted for 3 days and included seal, deer, fowl (most historians think it was actually duck and goose), lobster, and other seafood creatures. So, are we the non-traditional family or are all of you who eat turkey?

With that, being a Jewish family, we decided to make brisket. Being the best cook in the family I was charged with braising the bovine. However, back to the non-traditional thing, I did not do a traditionally Jewish-flavored brisket. Since we were in the Yucatan I decided to do a Yucatecan-flavored brisket, something that every Mayan Jew in the world could enjoy. In Spanish brisket is called faldo de res, pibil is traditional Mayan seasoning (sour orange and achiote), hence, we ate Faldo de Res Pibil.

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My ingredient list included 5 tbsp achiote paste, 1.5 tbsp dried cilantro, 1.5 tbsp peppercorns, 1 tbsp cumin, 1 tbsp cinnamon, 2 cups sour orange juice, 2 cups water, 1 tbsp salt, and 2 tbsp minced garlic. Oh, and 3 pounds of faldo de res.

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Really simple, I mixed everything together in my mom’s braising pan, drowned the brisket in it, covered it, and let it slowly braise in the oven at about 275 degrees for about 6 hours or so.

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I also made Yucatecan pickled onions. I sliced up 7 small onions and boiled them for about 10 minutes.

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After that, I strained them and let them soak in a mix of 1 cup of orange juice and the juice from 1.5 limes. I put that all in the fridge and let it rest until serving time.

While everything was in the oven we all decided to head out to a festival being held in the town of Tekanto, about 45 minutes from Merida. They had set up a bull fighting ring in the town center. I have never been to a bull-fight, and while the night we were there wasn’t the actual fight, it was very interesting to see the Matador understudies and the entire culture surrounding the bull-fight.

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If you ask me, I don’t quite get the fascination with the whole thing. It’s really not fair to the bull seeing as it gets poked and prodded before being taunted for all to see. If you want a fair fight, poke and prod the matador too. Then we’ll see survival of the fittest as nature intended.

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Before taunting the bull they paraded a heifer around and sliced its throat for all to see. That brought on some major cheers. Again, I just don’t get it, but it is a sight to see, no doubt about that. These guys had that thing butchered down to the bone within 20 minutes, I’ve never seen such fast knife work. I thought about inserting one of the photos I took of the butchering, but it’s pretty graphic, so use your imagination. I hear that the meat is donated to feed the less fortunate, so I’m cool with that, but it’s still rather inhumane.

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When we got back to mom’s the brisket was ready. I let her do the carving. Unfortunately for me, I was in the middle of a sparring match with Montezuma so I didn’t get to enjoy a full meal. I did taste some of the brisket though, and it was delicious! If I ever make it again I would probably cut the sour orange juice down by a half cup and replace it with more water as it was a strong flavor, but it was a good flavor, especially seeing that it was my first attempt at something like this, something that may never have been done before since pibil dishes are usually marinated and then cooked in banana leaves, not braised. That’s the fun of cooking, trying something new and learning as you go.

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What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than to get away from cold Chicago and bask in the Mexican sun? Well, I was with my obnoxious family that took 2 hours to decide, read that argue about, what to do for every meal, so maybe it could be better? Actually, I’d have it no other way. A little aggravation is good for the soul. One thing that was easily agreed upon was heading to the San Benito Market in Merida (where my mom lives) with my two brothers. If you read my post on the market from the last time I was in Merida, you’ll see that I’m a big fan of the various tacos and other food items one can gorge themselves on. One thing I didn’t try on my past trip was any of the seafood. So, my brothers and I set off to find out if it’s as good as the 4-legged creatures one can devour there. We did start off with a couple of tacos each for an appetizer.

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What we found in the pescado section was that none of the “restaurants” served fish ceviche. All of the camarones one could want, but no fish ceviche. One of the stalls was willing to make it for us though. So, they headed over to the fishmongers and grabbed a couple of fish for us. One was a snapper and the other was something else. I did see some baby hammerhead sharks at the fishmongers’ counter (don’t know why my older bro didn’t get a good photo of those as I didn’t have my camera with me, but he’s not as bright as I am, so we’ll give him a pass), and the other fish did have a sharky texture, but I’m not sure if it was shark or not.

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This woman, with all of her years of skill and knowledge, proceeded to skin, inspect, and chop up the various fish. Then she added the lime juice, salt, and pepper, and mixed it around for a bit. She dumped it out and did it all over again and again tasting each time to make sure it was just how she wanted us to eat it.

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Once the fish was “cooked” enough and had enough of the seasoned lime flavor she mixed in some diced onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Out of the mixing bowl and onto our plate.

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When a little old Mayan woman serves you something she just made right in front of your eyes with a smile like that, how can it not be delicious? Well, it wasn’t delicious, it was beyond delicious! It was delovecious! You see, I had to make up a lame ass word and it still doesn’t do justice to what she just whipped up. With some tortilla’s and super spicy salsa verde none of us had ever eaten a ceviche quite so good. You could really taste the love she put into that dish. This woman didn’t want three handsome men like us (I’m by far the most handsome of the three, and I smell the best too) to go unsatisfied. I think all three of us left a little piece of our hearts, and stomach linings with her.

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Ah yes, horse, the other red meat. You know, I’ve never understood why horse meat was off-limits in America. I mean, it’s an animal not all that dissimilar to deer or elk and we certainly have no problems eating them. Is it because we ride horses? Would you eat a cow if you rode it? I don’t know. I do know that many other places in the world do eat horse, and Japan is one of them. While it’s not a prominent animal in the extremely large, diverse, and interesting encyclopedia of animals consumed by the Japanese, it is featured in various areas where other meats might not be as readily available. As such, in places like Tokyo, there are restaurants dedicated to serving this animal on a platter rather than saddling it up for a gallop. The other night I finally got my first opportunity to enjoy the succulence of these animals when a friend of mine asked me if he could take me out for a horse. Not only is that the first time another man had ever asked me that questions, but that was a proposition I was only too happy to jump on. So, we headed out to the Ebisu district of Tokyo and headed to a place called Uma Yakiniku Takeshi. Uma is horse in Japanese, yakiniku is the style of grilling meat at your table, and Takeshi is the name of the proprietor of this establishment, he also happens to be a well-known Japanese comedian. Before I get to the food, one thing I love about Ebisu is that there are numerous interesting little izakaya’s serving up weird and exotic cuisine that you would never find unless you stumbled upon them. We ended up walking around for about 15 minutes before finding our destination.

When we sat down we were greeted with a cold glass of draft beer and some lightly pickled cucumbers with salted kombu. I’m not a big pickle or cucumber guy by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, this wasn’t too bad at all. I even think my younger brother, he who has even stronger negative feelings toward pickled cucumbers than me, would eat this. At least he would if he was hungry enough to eat a horse.

We started off with horse tataki. Rolled in black pepper and lightly seared on all sides, this piece of meat (what part of the animal is still up for debate, but I think it’s the tenderloin) was covered with in thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.

After a quick dip in ponzu (the horse meat, not me) here I am about to have my first taste in equestrian delights. MMMMMMMMMMMM! Honestly, it reminded me of kosher pastrami. I could throw this on some rye bread, slather on the mustard, and wash it down with a Dr Browns and be a happy man. Very delicious and surprisingly familiar to me. I had heard that horse tasted quite a bit like beef, but I think it’s a little more like bison as the muscles don’t have as much fat as cow does.

Next up was horse sashimi. Just think of this as beef carpaccio, except that it went nay instead of moo. A bit of fresh grated ginger and garlic, a splash in some tamari, and down the hatch. A little sweeter than beef, and much more tender than I expected. I can’t recall ever eating a beef carpaccio that I enjoyed as much.

Then we got the yakiniku going. The first plate had some napa cabbage, eggplant, the green part of the scallion, and, of course, some horse meat. This part of the animal comes from the belly/rib area. Think of it as thinly sliced ribeye.

Here’s our tabletop grill in full effect. I didn’t get a pic of it, but we each had a dish with three different dipping options for the grilled meat. There as a ponzu-based sauce that was my favorite, some sea salt, and some rice vinegar.

For the next cut of horse to be grilled my friend thought he’d throw me curveball, something I’d be hesitant to shove down my throat. He was wrong as it turned out to be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever grilled yakiniku-style…the heart! I’m telling you, this was so tender and sweet, with a bit of black pepper it was heavenly! I’d jump a fence to get me some of this.

So good, the heart was (that’s my Yoda speak), that we had to get more on our next plate. Besides the heart and horse food (vegetables) this dish also had blood pipes. I don’t know if they were arteries or veins, but they were also delicious. A little rubbery, but after a few chews the clean flavor of the animal really came through. It was almost like eating thick intestines, but clean intestines. Very good indeed.

We put the grill aside after that and got a plate of horse weiner. No, not that kind of weiner, I don’t have that big of an appetite. This was a plate of weiner-style sausages. Again, a little sweet, but a very deep, rich flavor. It was also very juicy.

Our final dish was horse fried rice. With a little scrambled egg and some scallions this was a very typical fried rice, but with horse meat.

I have to say, Americans are a weird bunch. We shun so many different food items that the rest of the world consumes. As I write this blog it becomes clear to me that the reason we’ve not been exposed to things like horse as an edible creature is solely because of politics. If the beef lobby wasn’t so powerful I think we’d be eating all sorts of other animals…guinnea pig, various insects, horse, etc. It really is a delicious animal, and one that doesn’t contribute nearly as much to Climate Change as cows do. If we open our minds as well as our mouths, there’s a lot of tasty things out there we could enjoy. Mr Ed, sorry, but you are one delicious creature!

HeiChinRou

If memory serves me correct, there is a Chinese restaurant in Yokohama’s Chinatown that is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in Japan, but also one of the most respected Chinese restaurants in the world. I first heard of HeiChinRou when watching Iron Chef years ago. The restaurant sent its top two deputy chef’s up against Iron Chef Chen Kenechi only to have him cut them down. Not satisfied, they finally sent their Grand Master Chef to set things straight, Xie Huaxian. Xie is considered by many to be the greatest Chinese chef of our time. He was victorious. Ever since then I told my self, “I have got to eat at that restaurant!” After 7 trips to Japan, including numerous time walking past HeiChinRou, that day had finally come. Yuki had plans with a bunch of her friends to show off Otis, so her parents took me to fulfill my belly’s destiny.

An elegant restaurant on numerous floors, there’s a peaceful bamboo garden when you walk in. They took us in an elevator up to the second floor and sat us in a very comfortable booth. Coming from Chicago I was pleasantly surprised by how absolutely clean the restaurant is. It had the look and feel of a high-end French restaurant, not the greasy Chinese stir-fry I am used to. The menu features many a la carte dishes as well as a handful of set course options. Being the first week of 2012 we opted for the “Happy New Year” course option.

Uichiro and I started off with some Shokoshu, a type of Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing. Served warm, it has a caramel color as well as taste more similar to a Brandy than a rice wine. Very smooth and very warm in the belly, its delicious on a chilly day.

The first course consisted of 5 tastes. Jellyfish, a baby squid stewed in soy sauce, a shrimp, a slice of smoked duck breast, a piece of Chinese BBQ pork, and a dollop of mustard. While they were all fantastic, I have to say that the pork may have been the best piece of swine that has ever graced my palette! If it were socially acceptable I would drape myself in it and nibble on it all day long.

The second course was Shark Fin Soup with Crab. I have eaten shark fin soup before, but always questioned the authenticity of the shark fins. I always thought I was being served cellophane noodles instead. I think I was right as this texture was nothing like the bowls I’ve previously eaten. Slightly chewy, they combined beautifully with the sweetness of the crab meat. This soup may not be humane, but it sure tasted good!

The third course was abalone with Simmered Shiitake and Bok Choy in Oyster Sauce. It’s really too bad that abalone is illegal in the States, it really is a wonderful mollusk. Dense in texture, it matched very well with the soft shiitake and bitter green.

The fourth course was Beef with Shimeji Mushrooms, Carrots, and Asparagus. Served in a soy based sauce it was simply wonderful. After eating this I don’t see how I can go back to eating Mongolian Beef in Chicago’s Chinatown.

The fifth course was Shrimp in Chili Sauce. A little bit of sweetness and just the right amount of heat to get your mouth tingling a little. The spice made you want to keep coming back for more. Fried wonton skins added some crisp texture and was Uichiro’s favorite part of the dish.

The sixth course was Sautéed Rice with Egg, Pork, Green Onion, and Lettuce. This dish is similar to fried rice except that it’s sautéed together over a lower heat. This keeps the rice a little softer and helps prevent the lettuce from wilting under the intense heat of a hot wok. I’ve seen his dish on Iron Chef and was glad to get the chance to eat such a high quality version of it.

The seventh course, dessert, was Almond Jelly with a sprig of mint. I think this was Uichiro’s favorite part of the whole meal. He’s eaten many different almond jelly’s in his life and couldn’t get over how good this one was. I’ve only eaten a few, but I agree that this one was the best I’ve ever had. Sweet with the texture of a fine silken tofu, a great way to end a great meal.

All in all, I will say that none of these dishes were out of the ordinary for Chinese food as far as creativity. However, that said, I don’t think you’ll find better preparation anywhere in the world. In each dish the ingredients were of the highest quality, they were all cooked to perfection, and the flavors were expertly balanced. Hands down the most fantastic Chinese food to ever pass through my tracts!

While Xie Huaxian is no longer cooking at HeiChinRou, his successor, Nishizaki-san, is no slouch.

Yakitori Akira

The other night Yuki and I met up with a bunch of her ex-coworkers who have moved back to Tokyo. They got a table at a modern, hip Yakitori joint in the Hibiya neighborhood. If you want to buy a brand new Hermes bag, Hibiya is the place for you. It’s a very swanky area filled with great food. The place they met us at is called Yakitori Akira. It’s in the basement of a large office/shopping building along with a handful of other slightly upscale food joints.

When you walk in you take your shoes off and walk past the open counter where the chefs prepare the chow. The tables are sunken. I was a little nervous at first because the tables were floor level and my knees are terrible. But, the floor was recessed making them regular table height, something that is becoming more common in newer restaurants, sort of fusion if you will.

The first dish, after a cold draft beer of course,  was a salad of raw Nappa cabbage swimming in a mayonnaise-based dressing and topped with sliced kombu.

After that came some natto topped with sliced green onions and nori seaweed. Natto is a love-hate food. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a type of fermented soy bean and has a really pungent odor, like ripe armpits. It also has a very sticky texture. It’s commonly eaten with Chinese-style mustard to mask some of the smell. Yuki loves it, I don’t prefer it. Very few Westerners can tolerate it and, these days, not so many of the younger Japanese do either. But, I had to try it since they put it in my face. Needless to say, I took one bite and the quickly proceeded to chug some beer!

Then we had some chicken karage, Japanese-style chicken nuggets. Unlike your McDonald’s variety of processed crap, this is big juicy chunks of thigh meat. I have no idea what kind of sauce this one came with, but it sure was tasty!

This here is the dish I was most looking forward to…rare chicken meat! The meat from the neck was quickly seared, almost completely raw (the pink you see in the picture is indeed raw chicken), on a hot skillet and served with some yuzu kosho. Rare chicken is extremely controversial, for obvious reasons, but given the upscale atmosphere I was certain they were using fresh, high quality birds. Since I have yet to get diarrhea or vomit profusely, I’m pretty sure the meat was clean. Flavor-wise it tasted like chicken, oddly enough. The texture was a little chewy, chicken al dente. Honestly, it’s nothing really special, it’s just chicken meat.

Avocado sautéed in some sort of shoyu sauce came next. Coming from Chicago I’m used to Mexican preparations of avocado. This was a nice change to what my taste buds are used to. The sauce carmelized a little while the avocado stayed nice and soft.

After the Avocado we spiced things up a bit with some kimchi. It was served with some chopped green onion, julienned daikon, and a shiso leaf.

Next came what is probably my favorite snack of the night, deep-fried chicken skin. Japan’s answer to chicharones. Crispy, buttery, all-around chickeny goodness! I may have to make this a staple of my future diet.

What tour around the bird would complete without some chicken wings? These were deep-fried with either basil or shiso in the batter, I couldn’t really tell. With a squirt of lemon they were delicious.

The main course of the night was the table-top charcoal grill. Instead of eating yakitori style (chicken on skewers) we ate yakiniku style (grill yourself). The first pieces we grilled were breast meat wrapped in shiso leaf.

The other pieces of chicken we got were neck meat, 2 parts of the heart (heart skin and heart meat), meat that was dangling off a piece of cartilage (I think the breastplate), and skin. We also had a few pieces of okra to grill.

Once the meat was grilled we dipped the pieces into an onsen egg. Basically it’s just an egg that’s been barely soft-boiled to the point where the whites were just set and the yolk is still runny. To me, this is natures most perfect sauce.

After all of that chicken we decided to get a few cuts of pork for shits and giggles. We got shoulder, cheek, and side meat and grilled them all the same as the chicken.

As Yuki and I were leaving due to having Otis back at grandma and grandpa’s, everyone else ordered up some soup. I really have no idea what was in the soup, but I imagine it was miso. From the pic I took here as I left I can definitely tell you it was topped with nori and had a shtickle of wasabi.

All in all, I thought Akira was a great izakaya. They call themselves Yakitori Akira because the chef’s specialty is chicken, but to me it’s not a yakitori restaurant at all, even though they do serve yakitori. The menu is much too diverse to be called yakitori. Since they serve up numerous small plates and whatnot with a nice beer and sake list, its pure izakaya to me. That said, what’s in a name? An izakaya by any other name’s chicken would taste is sweet.

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