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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Now skewer this!

Smoky, juicy, fun -- and easy: That's Japanese mixed grill.

June 13, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

START with the pork belly, three pieces, each about an inch square; thread them on a skewer, sprinkle lightly with salt and grill quickly over a hot flame. Eat them as soon as they come off the fire: The outside is browned and delicately crisp, the inside chewy and juicy. The pork flavor is deep and profound, with an almost subliminal hint of wood smoke.

At Shin-Sen-Gumi restaurant in Gardena, grilled food means so much more than steaks and burgers. It is the essence of Japanese cooking: a basic food treated simply, yet the result is way beyond anything that either ingredient or technique would seem to promise individually.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Japanese translation: In an article about \o7yakitori in Wednesday's Food section, it was reported that \o7yaki translated as "skewer" and \o7tori as "chicken." Actually, \o7yaki means "grilled" and \o7tori means "bird."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Japanese translation: In an article about \o7yakitori in last week's section, it was reported that \o7yaki translated as skewers and \o7tori as chicken. Actually, \o7yaki means grilled and \o7tori means bird.

The amazing thing is that making them is so easy you can do it on your own backyard barbecue. In fact, compared with hamburgers (with their flare-ups), grilled pork belly is a breeze.

Welcome to the world of yakitori, where equipped with only a grill and some bamboo skewers, you can create a feast. You need no special techniques or complicated sauces, and all of the ingredients can be found quite easily at your nearest Asian grocery.

This summer, instead of repeating the same endless cycle of chicken breasts and steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs, why not try grilling on the wild side?

Traditionally, yakitori specifically refers to grilled chicken parts (yaki means skewers and tori means chicken). And most yakitori restaurants do serve an encyclopedic assortment of poultry parts, including not just thighs and breasts, but also gizzards and crisped cartilage. Modern usage, though, broadens the definition to include a wide variety of grilled foods.

One of the best and most popular yakitori restaurants in Southern California is Shin-Sen-Gumi, located in a strip mall on Western Avenue just north of the 405 freeway. It's a little place, basically just a bar and a long banquette, like an old-school sushi spot.

Because it's so small, there's often a line waiting outside, a mix of Japanese businessmen from the nearby auto companies, young hipsters who look straight out of "Tokyo Pop" and the occasional foodie.

Sit at the bar if you can. That's the best place to appreciate the energy of the young kitchen staff. Almost all of them seem to be under 25, and they're clad in black T-shirts that look like they came from one of the Japanese rock bands providing the restaurant's soundtrack.

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Enthusiastic welcome

THEIR friendliness is almost overwhelming. Enter and you're saluted with raucous shouts from the staff. Buy the crew a beer and you'll be treated to an oration that sounds like a nominating speech at a political convention.

A plate of cabbage salad, lightly dressed with soy and vinegar, is placed in front of you. That's a good tip for planning your dinner at home: A side dish of something crisp and a little tart is a welcome counterpoint to all of the rich-tasting grilled food.

Then you'll get the list. How varied can a grill meal be? There are 40 items on the regular menu at Shin-Sen-Gumi plus a regularly changing list of daily specials. In addition, there is a full menu of nongrilled foods -- mostly side dishes to complement the main menu.

The cooking action takes place in full view on a rectangular grill, roughly 4 feet long and less than a foot wide, fired with oak charcoal. There are usually a couple of chefs working at a time, and as they skip back and forth along the length of the grill working the skewers, they look like they're playing an especially spirited xylophone duet.

Order widely but not too deeply, at least at first. Get a good sampling, but remember that in yakitori as in sushi, you'll have plenty of opportunity to order more. And because nothing on the regular menu costs more than $4 (and most things are less than $2.50), you can experiment.

Could anything be better than that grilled bit of pork belly? Well, yes, actually. Skewer it around a torn fragment of shiso leaf before you grill it and you have something approaching heaven. The aromatic leaf, powerful as basil or mint but with its own distinctive perfume, adds another dimension to that wonderful grilled pork savor (yes, that's all there is to it -- who couldn't do that?).

Or try wrapping the pork belly around a bouquet of earthy enoki mushrooms or fresh green asparagus. Or maybe wrap a thin strip of bacon around a cherry tomato.

Or switch to chicken: juicy dark meat marinated briefly in mirin (sweet rice wine), sake and soy and served plain or skewered with green onion. Or perfectly cooked breast, its moist texture and slightly bland flavor punctuated by a riotous dot of fiery wasabi, astringent ume (pickled plum), or spicy-sour yuzu (fragrant citrus) and chile paste.

Need a break from all that meat? How about little green shishito peppers, served in a shallow slick of soy and buried under a drift of shaved, dried bonito flakes? Or fresh shiitake mushrooms simply brushed with a little of the same marinade you used for the chicken?

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