The effort required to make yakitori might make it the antithesis of convenience-obsessed American food culture. That’s because patience, simplicity, and gratitude collide with order and grace to produce no more than a handful of carefully dressed skewers. In short, breaking down a bird is hard work that’s equal parts art and skill—and you never quite know what you’re going to get.
“It’s whatever the bird yields us, that is how we build the skewers,” says Tommy Lee, chef-owner of Uncle, which has a nine-year-old location in Highland and a two-year-old outpost in Wash Park.
Lee says yakitori feels like an extension of Uncle’s ramen-centric cuisine, and he added it to the Wash Park location’s menu in June 2020 after a visit to Tokyo—a city bustling with expeditious and traditional yakitori joints. When Lee tried the skewers—his favorite being the delicate and juicy chicken tail—he fell in love, and was inspired to bring the beloved Japanese street food to the Mile High City.
“The difficult part was finding someone in Denver who could do it traditionally,” Lee says.
Sean May, a chef whose fondest memories in the kitchen include waking up at 5 a.m. to carve up a pig carcass, answered the owner’s prayers. “It takes a certain skill to do it efficiently, and it pretty much takes me eight hours,” says May, now sous chef at Uncle Wash Park.
From Monday through Thursday, May strips, slices, and skewers roughly 20 chickens for the restaurant’s yakitori menu, which features about 12 items. Another component (and self-admitted bonus) of May’s work is the ability to use live fire and cook raw meat. It’s almost orchestral, with May acting like the maestro of a charcoal quartet, quickly turning and shifting the dripping, salted chicken above burning embers of Japanese charcoal known as binchotan.
The binchotan—which is only made in Japan—is crucial to creating traditional yakitori. “If you were to use brichet charcoal or smokier lump charcoal it has a much different flavor,” May says. “You lose the subtleness of the chicken.” May moves swiftly, cooking different skewers at different times above the coals, a practiced internal timer ticking in his head to keep track of the perfect temperature.
After the binchotan is lit, the coals are covered with sand to cool them down and make the small black pieces more dense. May and the other chefs at Uncle burn through 30 pounds of binchotan per week to grill the skewers to tan and tender perfection.
“Yakitori is just chicken, grill, and smoke,” Lee says. “There’s this primal attachment to it. I think that’s the case with all barbecue.”
Lee’s ambition is to open a restaurant that exclusively serves the cuisine. Until then, he and May will continue to master the yakitori technique, and in the process, create a loyal and satisfied following of hungry customers with a taste for the elaborate simplicity of this Japanese dish.
The yakitori menu is available at Uncle Wash Park Monday–Thursday, 5–9:30 p.m.; 95 S. Pennsylvania St.; (reservations are recommended)