What I Like About Japan #1: Yakuniku Restaurants

Chaos in Print

I’m sure that when most of you think about Japanese food, your mind fills with images of rice, noodles, and sushi. At least, that’s what I was thinking when I first arrived in this country. Soon, I was slowly exposed to more and more Japanese food by my co-workers, as we occasionally go out to dine some nights. At first, most of my suspicions seemed to be confirmed when the usual hangout was the Chinese restaurant up the street. (I know, eating Chinese food in Japan. Saying the words sounds kind of odd.) But then, one warm summer evening, one coworker suggested something that the gang hadn’t done since I arrived. He suggested going to the yakuniku place two blocks down the street. Naturally, I was intrigued. What is this yakuniku?

As we walked up the street, they tried to explain things to me. “Yakuniku” is also known as Korean barbeque, but that’s all I was able to comprehend from their explanations. We got to the restaurant and they led us to our table. The waiter took our drink orders and handed us our menus. I glanced over the menu and was delighted to see all cuts of meat on the menu. I am often kidded about being an “Alberta beef eater.” But of course, the one thing I noticed was the big, gaping hole in the middle of the table. I asked what it was for, and I was told to just wait. It wasn’t long before our waiter came back carrying a rather large bucket. He placed the bucket in the hole and removed the cover. The bucket was full of hot coals. There was a barbeque in the middle of our table.

To start things off, one of my coworkers suggested a round of beef tongue. He asked if I was disgusted at the prospect of eating tongue, but all I heard was “beef.” And don’t worry, it wasn’t an actual tongue served up on a platter. It was sliced up nicely, resembling something you’d buy at the deli counter of a grocery store. But it was served to us raw, however. Undaunted by this, my coworker just picked up a slice with his chopsticks and threw it on the barbeque. My eyes lit up at this prospect! Yakuniku is self-serve barbeque! I grabbed my chopsticks, threw on a slab of tongue, and began cooking it to well-done perfection.

Once things were done grilling, I knew I was going to need some barbeque sauce. My coworker handed me a small jar filled with a sticky-sweet meso paste. This was my barbeque sauce. I took out a really tiny spoonful and smeared some over my beef tongue. Since this was an incredibly small cut of meat, I popped the whole thing in my mouth and thought only one thing: delicious!

As the night wore on, we began to order cuts of pork and chicken. I could see there was also a small selection of seafood, but none of my coworkers were in the mood that night. I also noticed at this place that you could get “foil-wrapped potatoes,” if you were in the mood for a baked potato. There was also a fine selection of vegetables for you to grill, and I thought I’d make Mom happy by eating my veggies. I talked my coworkers into ordering the mixed vegetable platter, and I grilled up some shitake mushrooms for myself. We all left that evening feeling rather stuffed. One of my coworkers turned to me and said, “You know, if you really liked this, there’s an all-you-can-eat yakuniku place on the other side of town.” I simply replied that we’d have to try it sometime.

A few months later, as a group of us were coming back from a daytrip in the mountains, we were wondering what we should for dinner. One member in our group naturally threw out the suggestion, “All you can eat yakuniku!” And so we were off to the all-you-can-eat yakuniku place on the other side of town. (Which, as it turns out, is next to Kumagaya’s only sushi restaurant. Yup, a suburb of Tokyo and home to just one sushi restaurant! But I digress.)

Naturally, the all-you-can-eat place operated a little differently. Firstly, you paid your money upfront. We were led to our table, and that’s where I noticed that there was no gaping hole in the middle of the table. Rather, there was a small gas grill. The waiter lit our pilot light and gave us each a small dish filled with a brownish liquid. This was the place’s “house barbeque sauce.” Once you’re done grilling, let it soak in the sauce for a while. But, the bowls of sticky-sweet meso paste were nearby if you wanted to things the traditional way. Once we were settled at our table, we knew it was time to get eating.

We headed on up to where the food was laid out. It was just like one of my father’s beloved all-you-can-eat buffets back home. Laid out on ice was a whole variety of cuts of raw meat. Just grab what you like and head back to your table to start grilling! If you felt like getting your share of veggies that night, they had all variety of vegetables for the grilling plus a small selection of salads. If you and your friend were fighting over whether to go to the yakuniku place or the sushi place, and you lost to yakuniku, there was even a small selection of sushi available for you (though most agreed that it wasn’t very good sushi). And if self-barbecued meat and grilled veggies wasn’t enough for you, you could top things off with a bowl of rice or a bowl of meso soup. If you remembered to order the all-you-can-drink drink bar, then you could go get yourself a glass of something to wash it all down. (Or, if you weren’t driving that night, you could call your waiter over and order a beer.)

As I gazed over the cuts of raw meat, I noticed that there were a few more options open to me at this place. The cuts of beef were thicker and juicier. There was a larger variety of cuts of chicken and pork. Since it was sitting right before me, I knew I had to try some shellfish and squid that night. The squid was kind of tough, but the shellfish was OK. Of course, no one had ever tried shellfish before, so I just slapped it on the grill and watched it bubble and hiss while we all tried to figure out how to tell if it was done. I even grabbed a mysterious brownish slab of meat, and after I grilled it up and ate it, I knew I would make Mom happy. I was eating liver. We all ate our fill that night. We were there for at least two hours having all we could eat. And when everyone else was done, I was the only one with enough room left to head to the desert bar for cake and ice cream.

Yup, I’ve fallen in love with yakuniku. I wonder why it hasn’t come to North America. I’m sure it would be very popular. Who wouldn’t like all you can eat self-serve BBQ? I’m going to have to get my folks to slip a bottle of Bulls Eye BBQ sauce into the next care package and take it along next time we go. If you are in Japan right now, I suggest you get your head out of the sushi place and track down a yakuniku place. You will never have more fun at a restaurant! Well, maybe if you have your birthday at McDonald’s and you’re served by Cameron Diaz in a gold bikini, but until that day comes, yakuniku is the next best thing.

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