Sakura House: Sizzling Skewers of Kushiyaki

Absolutely fantastic grilled quail eggs wrapped in shaved pork.

Tucked away in the corner of a nondescript strip mall across and down the street from Costco on Washington Blvd is a wonderful Japanese restaurant. I’m not exactly sure how long Sakura House –  Sizzling Skewers of Kushiyaki has been there, but I first went there maybe eleven years ago. I believe my pal Mitch Pender took me there and I was a fan from the first bite. As you may have guessed from their wonderfully descriptive name, Sakura House specializes in grilled things on sticks.

Most of you will be familiar with yakitori, the famous chicken skewer of Japan, but you may not be familiar with the larger world of kushiyaki, which is way more than just grilled chicken bits on sticks. Of course chicken is offered, but perhaps in less recognizable forms; the best savory bits are chicken hearts, gizzards, livers, skin, and wings. But you’ll also find pork, beef, shrimp, squid, fish, and a variety of vegetables prepped for the grill. In addition they offer a wide range of other dishes from their back kitchen — salads, sauteed veggies, and some desserts.

At Sakura House they have a classic Japanese kushiyaki grill, which they feed with dense oak charcoal. I think they used to cook with specialized Japanese hardwood charcoal (which I’m familiar with and have used in the past) but according to the younger of the two grill-masters (the one staring at me in the picture below) Japanese charcoal is a thing of the past due to over-harvesting. You can get similar charcoal from China or Korea, but I think they now use a domestic product. In any event, this type of grill produces an intense heat, which cooks the skewers quickly and with a distinctive, lovely char.

It’s instructive to watch the guys grilling. They are focused and pretty adept at handling up to forty separate skewers at once, as well as whole ears of corn and rice cakes. I think they have a couple of different temperature zones, as I watched them transfer items from one side to another to finish. With most skewers, after grilling they’d dip or brush it with some tare sauce, a sauce of soy, mirin, sugar, ginger, maybe some garlic. It’s a simple sauce, and delicious.

It takes two guys to carefully tend this authentic Japanese grill.

Miso sauce, a little crunchy “crudite”.

When you sit down you’re given a little dish with two wells, one filled with a sweet-and-salty miso sauce. The other depression is for the soy sauce offered on the table. Another small dish is filled with a little crudite of cabbage, carrot, and cucumber which you can munch while you peruse the menu, which is vast with so many items it’s hard to make a choice. I recommend that you choose several grilled skewers, a salad of some kind, and a couple of warm dishes from the back kitchen. That’s what Regina and I did, and we had a wonderful, varied meal. We had enough to be full, enough to not want dessert, but not enough to make us feel obese when we left.

Simply, prettily prepared skewer of grilled squid with shiso leaf.

First up was a lovely skewer of grilled squid wrapped around shiso leaf. It was just-cooked-through, tender, and sweet. The aromatic shiso gave the mild squid a lovely herbaceous quality. I dipped it in the miso sauce and it came alive. It was a nice way to start, but frankly it paled in comparison to the robust and succulent parade of skewers that followed.

Next up was one of my favorites: enoki mushrooms wrapped in very thinly sliced pork belly. Six little bundles of the super-thin white fungi are stuck on a stick and grilled until lightly charred. This dish was absolutely stunning — fatty, delicious, springy on your tongue. I sprinkled over it a little shichimi togarashi, that finely ground Japanese chili powder mixed with ground yuzu zest. You’ll find a little shaker at every table. It’s a great way to give the skewers a little pow!

Skewer of gilled enoki mushrooms wrapped in thinly-sliced pork belly.
A little fuzzy, this pic. But the flavors of this dish were clear and direct.

A little sunomono was crisp and fresh, the thin slices of cucumber swimming in a mild ponzu. It’s a pleasant counterpoint to the more assertive flavors of the grill. If you’ve read any of my restaurant posts you’ll notice that in Asian restaurants Regina and I always get cucumbers in some form or another. It’s de rigueur when eating Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese.

Grilled chicken hearts! Really delicious. I heartily recommend them! : )
This dude never loses his cool over a hot grill.

After the cucumbers we got in rapid succession some of Regina’s personal favorites — chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I love them too, but Regina gets downright fanatical about them. The chicken hearts were excellent — flavorful, a little chewy but not not remotely tough. The livers were by far some of the best I’ve ever had. Sometimes livers can be too granular, too minerally, almost too funky. These were not; they were superb — tender, moist, robust in flavor, just delicious and addicting. They were on par with chicken livers I’ve eaten at Yakitoria and better than the livers we ate at Furaibo a few months ago.

Now gizzards are tricky. Part of the chicken’s digestive system, the gizzard is a gastric mill, pre-stomach, that helps the birds break down tough grains. It’s a pretty tough muscle and if cooked badly can be a hard thing to force down. But Sakura House makes perfect grilled gizzard. They were both tender and crunchy at the same time. Absolutely delicious, although probably not for the novice. But if you’re feeling just a tiny bit daring, this skewer is a must!

Chicken liver was truly amazing!
Perfectly cooked chicken gizzards. Both tender and crunchy!
Surprisingly spicy and addictive sauteed shishito peppers.

We got a little break from the grill in the form of sauteed shishito peppers, which had a nice little char from the hot pan. These were perfectly cooked, simple and delicious. Mostly shishito are very mild, almost like a baby green bell pepper, but it seemed like every third or fourth pepper in this batch had the fire of a jalapeno! I needed my ice cold Sapporo to help quell the heat.

That awesome quail egg!
You know these guys reek of grilled meat every day of their lives!

Afterwards came that excellent quail egg, wrapped like the enoki in thinly sliced fatty pork. The pork was crispy and delicious, and the flavor soaked into the mild and fluffy boiled egg. It was just dynamite, especially with a dash of togarashi and a tiny dip of soy. Possibly my favorite dish of the night. I could have eaten a dozen more!

Next was the a beef skewer, which was frankly overcooked and bland. Too chewy, and a disappointment. But the chicken wing that followed was great. Before skewering the wings, the chefs cut into the skin and splay it out a little so that the wings cook evenly on the grill; even so, the menu says they take 20 minutes to cook. Well, the time on the grill pays off. The garlic pepper wings were delicious and perfectly cooked — moist on the inside, crisp and fatty on the outside. Very good, although I think I liked them a bit more than Regina.

Grilled beef skewer was a little tough and slightly bland.
Garlic pepper chicken wings. Very yummy, but don’t forget they take 20 minutes!

Our crispy char-grilled rice cake was also quite good, well-cooked and toasty. Only the filling of seasoned seaweed (perhaps hijiki) was kinda blah. They have other offerings, salmon roe being the filling I’d try on another visit.

Next was fried tofu with ground chicken, which was a bit like Chinese classic ma po tofu but less saucy and lacking the zesty kick of Sichuan peppercorn. It would have been perfect with a bowl of steamed rice, but we hadn’t ordered any and the rice cake was too flavorful in its own right to be a good foil. Also, the sauce was a trifle too sweet for my palate. It wasn’t great, but I ate the whole thing anyway.

Grilled rice cake stuffed with seasoned seaweed.
Fried tofu with minced chicken. Tasty, a bit too sweet.

Excellent eggplant with a simple miso sauce.

The eggplant with miso sauce came out next, and it was a winner. The eggplant was perfectly cooked. Tender but not mushy, well-flavored and not at all oily. It had a slight smoky undercurrent, and Regina turned to me and said, “You can taste the wok hay!” And then we burst out laughing. Because that is what we do.

The final dish was the spicy chicken wings. They weren’t very spicy, but the sauce was delightful and the char was really nice, adding texture and real flavor. Very good and tasty, but by that time I was pretty much done. We were full. Happy and full.

“Spicy” chicken wings weren’t, but they did taste good!

Service at Sakura House was pleasant and mostly attentive. We were comfortable. The restaurant has a clean, no-frills dining room with a few modest and pleasant touches. I particularly like the wooden bird toothpick dispenser, which dips its beak into the toothpick box and extracts a single pick just for you. A silly thing to take to, I know, but I can be a silly man.

Regina and I agreed that our dinner was fantastic. We will make a return trip for sure.

I just love this toothpick dispenser!

It’s 70 degrees and Regina is shivering at the door of Sakura House. Preposterous.

A couple of notes. Parking can be difficult and street parking might be the best option, so give yourself a little extra time. Also, I very much recommend dining early; as the evening progresses the well-meaning and friendly waitstaff can get easily overwhelmed and the relatively small grill can get crowded. If you dine early, say 6:30 PM, you’ll get more attentive service and the cooks can take more care with your food. You should make a reservation for sure.

For just a couple of people I prefer the counter, where you can watch the guys grilling. For larger parties a table in the dining area is a better arrangement.

 
 
Sakura House
13362 W Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066
Neighborhood: Culver City

(310) 306-7010

One thought on “Sakura House: Sizzling Skewers of Kushiyaki

  1. I’ve been going since it opened 20 years ago. Unreal food in a hidden place. Not cheap, but worth every penny. Yoshi is the Master Chef and owner, Kinjo started as a waiter, became an apprentice and now almost holds his own with Yoshi. One year I got my year end summary from AMEX and over $6000 was dropped at Sukura House. No regrets. Nothing like this place in LA.

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