A late Saturday night in Tokyo. Fshhhh…! Phweoof! Fshhhhh! It’s a cool winter evening in Tokyo but I don’t care. Those “fshhh” sounds are slices of meat sizzling flawlessly at my expert touch — with an occasional “phweoof” of flames when I flip the meat.
I’m camped comfortably at my favorite yakiniku restaurant warming my soul with amazing food and the heat radiating from a grill in the center of my table.
This is my little world right now, with a fire in the middle for my wife and I to grill meat how we prefer it (medium-rare).
I’m at my favorite little local best-kept secret place (if you’re a member I’ll tell you where it is down at the end of this article). It’s where Superman would go if he wanted to keep his identity secret and enjoy some of Japan’s best food.
Ah… how do I explain yakiniku to you? Or better yet, how am I going to finish this guide? Every time I sit down to write I make myself hungry just thinking about it!
Authentic Japanese yakiniku is amazing and it really sets itself apart from the overly simple moniker of “barbecue.” It’s so much more than “Japanese BBQ.”
Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide:
- What is Yakiniku?
- All you can eat vs order by the plate
- The Beef Cuts
- Pork and Other Meats
- What is Horumonyaki?
- Common soups found at yakiniku restaurants
- What is Yakiniku Sauce?
- The Yakiniku Grill
- Yakiniku Etiquette (friends/family/groups)
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What is Yakiniku?
Yakiniku is the Japanese word for “grilled meat.” Yaki means grilled and niku is meat.
But “yakiniku” is really an art. Where craftsmanship and pride set yakiniku apart from just barbecue.
Really what you need to know is — if you enjoy grilled meat — you’ll LOVE yakiniku. It is hands down my favorite food in Japan (I’m a midwestern boy… love me some barbecue).
Here’s an excellent video by TabiEats trying out authentic Japanese yakiniku.
Is yakiniku Korean?
Yes and no.
Yes, the idea of grilling meat didn’t originate in Japan. Some believe Korean workers may have brought the concept over during the Meiji era.
But to say yakiniku isn’t Japanese today would be a misnomer. Sure, you’ll still find kimchi at yakiniku restaurants, but the cuisine has certainly taken on a lot of Japanese preferences over the years.
There are a ton of Korean restaurants in Tokyo too, often with a stark difference in style from the Japanese yakiniku restaurants. They’ll serve their meats in flavors of marinade not found in the typical Japanese restaurant.
Another interesting thing about the Korean restaurants is that the plates and silverware are actually metal. In some ways, it feels very plain. Just silver metal dishes (including chopsticks), but is understandable from the cleanliness perspective.
All you can eat vs order by the plate
This is going to get me into trouble. I have some strong opinions on this topic.
All you can eat
Tabehodai (食べホ大) all you can eat in Japanese, is as it sounds. You get something like 90 minutes to eat as much as you can.
Most yakiniku restaurants with this option will have a tiered menu where certain meats are available at different price levels — obviously with the best being the most expensive.
Order by the plate
Ordering by the plate is where you choose a cut of meat and a quantity — and pay for specifically what you ordered. Later in this guide, I’ll give you some Japanese to help order more easily.
So where’s the beef?
Remember I said I have strong opinions on all you can eat versus order by the plate?
While there are some decent all you can eat yakiniku restaurants, most are really more like cheap barbecue than proper yakiniku.
Of course, there are very expensive all you can eat yakiniku shops where it is amazing, but you’re spending $60+ per person.
That’s not to say all order by the plate type yakiniku shops are amazing. However, most tend to focus on quality rather than quantity.
In my opinion, if you want to experience amazing, traditional Japanese yakiniku… yakiniku taking grilled meat to a whole new level… go to an order by the plate type of place.
If you want to stuff yourself on as much delicious BBQ as you can, definitely check out the tabehodai places, and never buy the lowest tier on the menu.
The Beef Cuts
You’ll find Japanese beef (gyuniku 牛肉) is the primary meat at yakiniku restaurants. Here are the standard cuts you can expect:
Tan (タン) — means tongue in Japanese. Sometimes you’ll see it as
Karubi (カルビ) — is boneless short ribs. My personal favorite. It’s juicy, tender, and so full of flavor.
Rōsu (ロース) — the shoulder, very rich, slightly leaner cut, but still very tender.
Harami (ハラミ) — is skirt steak, from the diaphragm area of the cow. It is a lean cut with a bold flavor and is usually marinated in soy sauce or miso.
A fantastic article to read more about the various cuts of beef found in yakiniku restaurants is this one by GuruNavi — a Japanese company specializing in listing Japanese dining establishments.
What is Wagyu Beef?
I cover wagyu beef in-depth here.
You know how you think wagyu is this mythical, super-premium beef? Well, yes, it is… but guess what wagyu actually means?
Japanese cow (or Japanese beef).
Yep, wa means Japanese and gyu means cow. This includes the famous Kobe and Matsusaka beef.
And then there is the kuroge washu (黒毛和種 Japanese black cow). It’s one of six breeds of cow native to Japan. It’s famous as a top breed capable of producing the rare A5 rating of Kobe beef.
What is the Beef Grading Scale?
You’ve probably heard of the A5 grade beef. There is a meaning in this rating. Rather than try to explain the intricacies of this scale, here’s a fantastic article going in-depth on the subject.
It’s safe to say that attaining an A5 grade is exceptionally difficult and if you see it on the menu, you know it’s top-notch.
Are you curious about A5 grade Kobe beef?
I discuss this in my wagyu guide, but if you want to see the very highest grade Japanese beef like Kobe beef or Matsusaka beef, you’ll love this video by Simon and Martina.
Pork and Other Meats
I lumped pork in with chicken and other meats Japan grills because, as I mentioned above, beef is king.
- Butabara (豚バラ) — this is pork belly, a lot like bacon, very fatty.
- Tontoro (豚トロ) —this is a cut of pork from around the neck and cheek area. Not as common as butabara.
- Chikin (チキン) — is chicken. Most yakiniku shops will have at least one cut of chicken available, usually thigh or breast
- Sōsēji (ソーセージ) — is sausage, usually pork-based. Common at most yakiniku places, but not really special, more of a filler.
There are other very popular things to grill at a yakiniku restaurant, but I want to give them a whole section of their own. It’s horumon… and you’re either going to find this very interesting, or you’ll skip it.
What is Horumonyaki?
Ah… horumon. That weird, disgusting, awkward conversation with your conscience.
I shouldn’t say disgusting because that’s my opinion, but the Japanese love it.
Horumon is offal. The “innards” of a cow, pig, chicken, etc. Things like intestine, liver, heart, uterus, arteries… yea, pretty much all that stuff.
Horumon-yaki refers to grilling offal, and the Japanese love it.
At most yakiniku restaurants you will find a few of these, usually intestine, heart, and liver. Some shops specialize in horumon though and will offer the full roster of offal choices.
I have to include this funny quote from Wikipedia about horumon:
“The name horumon is also similar to the Kansai dialect term hōrumon (放る物), which means ‘discarded goods’” [source: Wikipedia]
And here’s Tokyo Drew eating offal.
Common soups found at yakiniku restaurants
It’s not only grilled meats you can enjoy at yakiniku restaurants. It turns out they often have some delicious soups to try as well. Some taking days of boiling bones to create the perfect soup.
- Karubikuppa (カルビクッパ) — a spicy soup made with the
karubishort ribs, often with rice to make it more like a porridge.
- Komutan (コムタンスープ) — a beef bone, or oxtail, broth soup. It is a white-ish soup with a very general flavor, ready for you to add salt/pepper to your preferred taste.
- Wakame (ワカメスープ) — a seaweed soup. It almost appears as if it is literally seaweed in hot water, but it does use chicken stock, onion, sesame oil, and other ingredients.
What is Yakiniku Sauce?
Yakiniku sauce is interesting because it’s one of those things you can buy in the supermarket here in Japan, but nearly all yakiniku shops make their own unique variety.
It’s a combination of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and whatever else the shop wants to add to make theirs unique. I love the sauces that add roasted white sesame seeds too (many do).
The result is a salty, sweet, slightly thick sauce the Japanese will use as a dipping sauce at essentially all yakiniku restaurants.
I have yet to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a yakiniku dipping sauce.
This sauce is fantastic as a marinade too. In fact, you’ll find Japanese beef cuts already in the marinade at supermarkets in Japan — right in the meat section alongside the other meats.
The Yakiniku Grill
Sometimes the grill is what makes the shop. You’ll see what I mean when you start trying yakiniku restaurants.
Some will have gas grills. Some will have charcoal. Some will be these fancy hibachi, ceramic, grills.
Oh, a side note about the grills. Most yakiniku shops are “grill your own.” It’s part of the allure of dining at a yakiniku restaurant.
Other shops insist on grilling it for you. Typically these are the more high-end restaurants — especially if they don’t even put the grill on your table. Check out this video to see one of the absolute best yakiniku restaurants you can find in Tokyo.
And if you’d like to learn more about the various types of Japanese grills, here’s an excellent article by GuruNavi.
Yakiniku Etiquette (friends/family/groups)
I just wanted to touch on etiquette real quick. Not because there is some sort of Japanese cultural rules you must abide by — there aren’t really. It’s common sense really.
Generally, in a party setting, everyone sort of shares everything. The price, the food, drinks… all of it.
Often the youngest adults in a party (of Japanese) will do most of the grilling — giving the elder the first meat off the grill.
Every once in a while you’ll run into an awkward person who tries to only order what they want and pays for what they order. It’s rare, but it does come up.
I never really dig into those situations because it could be they have personal reasons for doing this. But like I said this shouldn’t come up often, and really it would only be if you join a party of Japanese people at a yakiniku restaurant.
Chances are you’re going with your friends and family so you probably won’t have to worry about any of this.