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SF’s Top Yakitori Restaurant Is Giving Nashville Hot Chicken a Japanese Kick

Hina Yakitori enters the fried chicken sandwich wars, with an assist from shichimi togarashi

Hina Yakitori

If there’s one thing you can count on Hina Yakitori to do right, it’s chicken. In pre-COVID times, the cozy Divisadero Street spot made a name for itself serving the region’s only omakase-style yakitori feast — each cut of the bird precisely butchered and then grilled over white-hot binchotan charcoal just so.

Now, Hina is adding a different kind of chicken experience to the San Francisco takeout scene: a Japanese twist on a Nashville hot chicken sandwich. It’s got the same crunch and burn you get when you make fried chicken in the Nashville style, but with a distinctive kick that comes from the Japanese spice mix known as shichimi togarashi.

Yakitori master though he may be, chef Tommy Cleary swears it’s the most delicious thing on the menu. “I don’t normally sit there and crave my own food,” he says. “But I eat this.”

Cleary’s foray into fried chicken started a couple of months into the pandemic, when it became clear that the restaurant was going to be doing takeout for the long haul. At that point, the Bay Area was already at least two years into its Nashville hot chicken obsession, but Cleary hadn’t seen anyone come at that style — which involves tossing the chicken in oil and spices after it has been fried — with a Japanese flavor profile. So was born Yagenbori hot chicken — named, Cleary explains, after the shop credited with inventing shichimi togarashi in the early 1600s, in much the same way that the name “Nashville hot chicken” points to a specific place and history.

The recipe Cleary came up with was a kind of cross between Japanese karaage and Nashville hot chicken — or, as he puts it, “It’s a mix of all of the fried chickens that you love.” Like karaage, chunks of boneless chicken thighs get marinated in soy sauce and ginger, but they’re also dredged in a proprietary mix of flours to get the crunch of good Southern-style fried chicken. Then the chicken is double-fried, like Korean fried chicken, before it gets its final Nashville-style hot oil dunk.

The other twist, of course, is that instead of the loads of cayenne that normally go into Nashville hot chicken, Cleary uses a custom blend shichimi togarashi, made up of seven ingredients, as is traditional, if not necessarily the same seven you’ll find in commercial mixes: ground red chiles, black and white sesame seeds, sansho, nori, sea salt, and dried yuzu peel. The result is a sauce that isn’t quite as painfully spicy and has a little bit more of a tang.

Hina has been selling its Yogenbori hot chicken since early June, but Cleary says it still hasn’t really caught on — in large part, he believes, because customers think of Hina as a yakitori restaurant, so they tend to stick with the yakitori bento boxes that it’s been selling for takeout. But Cleary says the fried chicken is what he would order if he were getting takeout at his restaurant — even over the yakitori, he says: “I’d be willing to challenge anybody’s fried chicken with this.”

And so, the sandwiches are the next step in getting that fried chicken out into the world. At $11 a pop, they feature an entire boneless chicken thigh fried in the “Yagenbori” style, a pile of cabbage slaw, yuzu kosho aioli, and three “strategically placed” pickles, all piled on an Acme burger bun. For those who like a little extra heat, there’s a saucier version that comes slathered with Hina’s housemade yuzu hot sauce, as well.

For now, the hot chicken sandwiches are still a bit of a secret menu item, sold in limited quantities during lunch and dinner each day. The restaurant has promoted the sandwich a little bit on Instagram, but held off on listing it on any of the delivery apps other than Bbot — for fear that they’d get more orders than they could handle, Cleary says. But if it really takes off, that might mean the restaurant is getting enough business for him to hire another cook.

Beyond that, Cleary is already thinking ahead to post-pandemic days, when Hina Yakitori can revert back to its original tasting menu incarnation — at which point he thinks a stand-alone Japanese fried chicken restaurant would be a hit. After all, Cleary says, while high-end yakitori is still a bit of a niche product in much of the U.S., fried chicken is universal: “Everyone knows what that is.”

Hina Yakitori

808 Divisadero Street, , CA 94117 (415) 757-0749 Visit Website

Torima by Hina Yakitori

808 Divisadero Street, , CA 94117 (415) 817-1944 Visit Website

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