Japanese influence flowers in Center City as well, with the city’s first legit karaoke bar, Yakitori Boy in Chinatown. The restaurant’s cream and dark-wood interior, long sushi bar and moody hatbox lights set a scene that’s swankier than most Chinatown hangouts, but still dressed down. Servers dart around the room sporting identical karate-esque uniforms, heads encircled by cartoonish red bandanas that make them easy to spot even if they are hard to flag down. The aggregate effect is of a Stephen Starr dojo/nightclub.
When done just right, few bar snacks rival the effortless perfection of yakitori: bite-size hunks of simply seasoned meat threaded on skewers and quickly seared on the outside, leaving a juicy, tender interior. Here on 11th Street, though, the beef is gristly, the chicken is stringy, and nothing shows the burnished crisp of properly scorching heat. But there are bright spots on the yakitori menu, including the bacon-wrapped quail egg, a kind of breakfast classic on a stick, and the tiny, tender chicken meatballs. The hot-dog-like pork sausage skewers offer a guilty, greasy pleasure.
Yakitori Boy’s laminated (and color-photo-illustrated) diner-sized menu goes far beyond meat on sticks, which might explain the kitchen’s inability to do any one genre really well. Sushi is served in three-bite half rolls, encouraging diners to taste a wider variety in the spirit of japas, Yakitori Boy’s too-cute nickname for Japanese small plates. A tasting spree would be appealing if the sushi were more so; a recent yellowtail specimen was carelessly rolled and so icy cold it may have just defrosted. Two deep-fried dishes — rubbery squid and spongy shrimp — coated lackluster seafood in a greaseless, light batter. But some of these small plates succeed, like the buta kimchi, a plate of sour-spicy cabbage and too-few slices of flavorful grilled pork, and the dumplings, including the crispy pork, skull-tingling wasabi and crunchy vegetable.
But as any late-night dinner concludes, you’re likely to see the secret to what will be Yakitori Boy’s real contribution to the city scene: tipsy groups and twosomes headed up the elevator to the private karaoke cocoons to croon Elvis tunes and call down to the bar for another round of beers.