Kokko (San Mateo, CA)

On my last trip to San Mateo, I met up with my former coworker Larry and his wife Yoko who took me out to for Yakitori. I’ve always loved the concept of Yakitori. Literally meaning “grilled chicken”, the concept started as street food (with fresh skewers of grilled chicken served up with a sauce), but, especially in the US, “yakitori” has grown to include a rather large variety of grilled meats and vegetables, usually served in a sit-down restaurant with a variety of Japanese sides. San Mateo has several well-regarded Yakitori places, and my hosts decided to take me out to try Kokko.

I rather liked the fact that San Mateo has a lot of these little Japanese restaurants, since it was a good opportunity for me to indulge in some of my more obscure Japanese food and drink items. The first two items we ordered were along these lines: unfiltered sake, and gobo salad. The unfiltered sake (nigorizake) is a bit of an acquired taste: they leave in the mashed rice from the fermentation, leaving suspended grain solids in the final drink, resulting in a thicker, milk-like appearance. The suspended grain solids also result in a sweeter, grainier taste, one that I enjoy, despite the slightly unusual texture.

Gobo salad is another unusual one that I don’t regularly encounter out my way: it’s basically a salad of gobo (root of the Japanese Burdock) and carrot, both poached in a light soy, and served up with a mayo-like dressing. I find the result much like a crunchy carrot slaw, and it seems (along with the unfiltered sake) to be a great way to cleanse your palate between courses.

After the starter courses, the remainder of the meal was basically “meat skewers” of different varieties, with over a dozen courses. So mostly I’m going to hit the highlights. Right out of the starting gate, one of the favorites was a combination of mushrooms (big, meaty shiitake mushrooms in a sweeter soy marinade) and marinated beef tongue. Tongue can often be a bit chewy, but here it was delightfully tender, with a rich, darker marinade, and just a nice bit of char on the edges. Pretty much the perfection of skewered beef.

Next up was some tsukune. Tsukune is a bit of an odd one: it’s basically a chicken meatball on a stick. Ground chicken, with a little bit of ginger, soy, and some veggies mixed in, wrapped around a stick, and then glazed with a sweet soy-based sauce, these also work quite well: a nice bit of ginger bit, and the glaze gets a nice sticky sear from the grilling.

Then, some chicken hearts. Like the beef tongue, these are a muscle that, if not marinated well and not cooked properly, can be tough and gamey, but, again, Kokko did well here: nice tender little chunks of chicken heart, nicely marinated with a soy-ginger sauce, and grilled just to the point of starting to crisp up, these were quite pleasant as well.

One exception to the “skewered” food was some chicken wings. And these were some extremely-well done wings, with a perfect fried crispiness, a bold soy glaze with some spice, and a dusting of sesame. I’d happily eat more of these.

Finally, if one goes to a yakitori place, you should actually get yakitori (grilled chicken), and it didn’t disappoint. Nicely cooked through and tender, with a pleasant glaze, a good crisp, and just a hint of smokiness.

So, overall, I really enjoyed Kokko. The food was perfectly grilled, the quality of the meats and marinades good, and the overall ambiance quite pleasant. Add in quite reasonable prices, and this was quite the nice place. Thanks to my hosts Larry and Yoko!

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