In Japan, yakitoriyas peddling skewers of roasted chicken are everywhere. They range from hole-in-the-wall dives, into which overworked salarymen duck to order a few sticks and chug a stein of beer, to ultra-expensive temples of poultry that can cost one's entire monthly salary. Here in Orange County, if you're looking for a yakitoriya, you'll likely end up at an izakaya such as Shin-Sen-Gumi, Honda-Ya or Kappo Honda. And you'd be happy you did. These three establishments—despite having expansive menus that cover the gamut of Japanese cooking—have produced some of the best yakitori in the county for decades.
Now comes Oak & Coal in Costa Mesa's Eastside, maybe the first OC restaurant to dedicate itself to just the skewers. Aside from the kimchi dumplings, two soba dishes and a cucumber salad, the menu is composed entirely of yakitori and kushiyaki items. Oak & Coal also distinguishes itself as the first such restaurant in the area to cater to the not-necessarily Japanese. On the night that I visited, there was a mixed crowd of recently Botoxed Newport blondes, their bro boyfriends, surfer dudes and various subgroups of hipsters.
The restaurant is the latest concept by Jeff Chon, the prolific restaurateur behind the Alley Restaurant, the Wayfarer and Tabu Shabu, which sits across the parking lot from Oak & Coal. Chon was there when I visited, offering beers and wines to those patiently waiting outside for a table. There's routinely a wait here, and on weekends, Oak & Coal is a noisy, lively place. The bar seats overlooking the kitchen are a shoulder-to-shoulder affair, and the big, communal table at the center of the room is crammed with bodies.
Service is impeccable and warm. I was never without a full glass of water, and plates were whisked away as soon as they were emptied. Chon has trained his staff well. They'll tell you how to place an order (you mark the quantity with dry-erase markers on a laminated order sheet) and what to do with the spent bamboo sticks once you're done (deposit them into the tiny vase). And on each table, not one, but two kinds of Japanese pepper flank the salt-and-pepper shakers. There's also a container of furikake to sprinkle over rice—something I've not seen offered elsewhere.
You should order the rice. There's nothing particularly special about it, but you need it as filler because if you opt to build your meal from skewers alone, dinner at Oak & Coal will get very expensive, very fast. Nearly every piece of meat hails from a named supplier, including Mary's Farm, Meyers Farm and Snake River Farms. This means that what you're eating is going to be all organic and hormone-free, but also quite costly. One skewer of beef will set you back $7, and a chicken skewer hovers around $4. These per-stick prices, I should note, are about double what you'd be charged at, say, Kappo Honda.
I would've been fine with it if they tasted twice as good. Unfortunately, I can't say they were. The chicken thigh, roasted between pieces of charred Tokyo scallion, was inexplicably dry and ropy. The Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork belly tasted mummified. And despite being cooked to medium, the Kobe short rib chewed as if it were rubber.
Most of all, missing from each stick was the requisite smokiness I've come to expect of yakitori. I wish I could explain why. According to the website, the grills at Oak & Coal employ the same ultra-expensive Japanese coal called binchotan that all the good yakitori joints use. Maybe the lack of actual smoke was the reason; on observing Oak & Coal braziers, I saw hardly a single wisp. By comparison, when I went to Kappo Honda a week later, billowing clouds of white enshrouded its master.
To me, that oh-so-subtle touch of smoke is as essential a seasoning as salt. Without it, it just wasn't the same—like a taco without salsa, a pizza without pepperoni, Disneyland without pirates. The smoke flavor was also missing from the quail eggs, the pork belly-wrapped okra and the asparagus, but at least the portion sizes for those skewers were generous. And while I think the chicken meatballs here were still a shadow of Kappo Honda's version, at least the Kurobuta sausages were snappy and juicy, already inherently smoky by nature.
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Oak & Coal's best dish, I would argue, is its hot soba noodle. And if you come, it may be the only dish you need to order. It does, in fact, come with a stick of the chicken thigh yakitori placed above the bowl. And in the absence of smoke, a tangy dashi broth, spinach and a perfectly cooked egg turned out to be fine.
Oak & Coal, 333 E. 17th St., Ste. 2, Costa Mesa, (949) 287-6150; oakandcoalcm.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $30-$70, food only. Beer and wine.