Sample menu, grill it yourself at Gyu-Kaku
By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
Gyu-Kaku, meaning "bull's horn" in Japanese, is less than a year old, and is packing them in every night. It's one of the fastest-growing chain restaurants in Japan (600-plus locations), a cross-cultural marriage of Korean and Japanese foods, flavors and techniques. The word yakiniku translates to yaki (grilling) and niku (meats).
Start your experience with some goodies to munch on before you get busy as your own chef. Edamame (boiled soybeans, $2.95) are always fun to pop in your mouth; they kind of get the party started. Maui onion slices with a side bowl of ponzu (a slightly citrusy shoyu-based sauce, $2.95) can be eaten raw if you wish, or cooked on the grill. 'Ahi poke ($2.95), crispy seaweed (95 cents) flavored with salt and sesame oil, and Japanese pickled vegetables ($4.95) were other starters.
Assorted kim chee items are a fine match for the yakiniku experience. Napa cabbage, daikon radish and pickled cucumber are $2.95 each, or $4.95 for a plate with all three items. The refreshing crunch gives way to a medium heat.
The Gyu-Kaku salad ($5.95) was excellent. The bowl of red leaf lettuce, shredded white and red cabbage, julienned sticks of daikon radish, hard-cooked eggs, and cucumber slices was drizzled with a slightly sweet miso mustard dressing. The tofu salad ($5.45) blends greens, croutons and tofu chunks in a creamy sesame dressing. I didn't try it, but the crispy wonton potato salad ($5.45) sounds good, too.
I've teased you long enough; it's time to roll up your sleeves and start grilling. Your waiter will fire up your electric grill to ignite the charcoal, which adds a nice flavor. You'll be given tongs to help you navigate your items over the grill.
The meats here are sliced into bite-sized pieces and weigh in at about four ounces per order. That's a smart idea, because you'll want to sample several things, and the per-plate price allows you to do so. All the meats are marinated in one of the following sauces: ta're is the traditional yakiniku sauce, shoyu-based and on the sweet side; shio (salt) is a mildly flavored white shoyu-based marinade; miso is the third flavoring.
The most popular item on the menu is beef tongue ($6.25, $6.75 with green onion), an item you don't often see on menus, but an ethnic favorite. Other organ choices are beef intestine (called hormone on the menu, $4.95), liver ($4.95) and mountain tripe ($4.95). These meats are the essence of the animal, primal, unctuous and full-flavored.
More-common items include harami (skirt steak) for $4.95, or $5.45 with garlic sauce or green onion. This one was chewy no matter how rare or well it was cooked, although it was delicious.
Chicken breast ($4.95, or $5.45 with basil, chile mayonnaise, or Japanese plum shiso sauce), calamari, salmon, and delicately sweet scallops ($4.95) were all easy to cook and quite flavorful. The shrimp ($5.95, with heads on) was a bit more challenging but couldn't be fresher.
Vegetables in foil packets allow them to steam to your desired level of doneness. They're in foil because butter is inside with the veggies. Asparagus is $3.95; the rest are $2.95 and include Japanese sweet potato, mushrooms, creamy potatoes, and garlic cloves.
Regular vegetables ($2.95 each, sliced, not in foil) include eggplant, pumpkin, shiitake mushrooms, sweet onion, and a hunk of corn on the cob. They take on a special flavor when grilled all those charred bits, and the sweetness from the internal caramelizing sugars.
The menu is extensive, offering soups, rice dishes and noodle dishes. The bibimba in hot stone pot ($6.95) is a specialty here; rice, ground chicken and mixed vegetables are served in a sizzling hot pot. They also do a version of bibimba with unagi (fresh-water eel, $6.95). The hot stone pot method is used also for the yummy cauldron of kalbi and mochi udon ($6.95) with spinach and rice cake.
Gyu-Kaku provides a lively place with private booths to relax with your friends and family, along with the food, drink and servers. You do the cooking.
Reach Matthew Gray at email@example.com.