Late last Thursday night, running until 3:00 a.m. Friday morning, May 25 and 26, Marty’s PM on Southside showcased a Kyoto Yakitori pop-up.
Over the course of the five-hour pop-up kitchen, Kyoto Yakitori served more than 160 orders of authentic Japanese street food to a crowd that packed Marty’s PM even past the last order.
Kyoto Yakitori — named for Japan’s ancient capital and skewered, grilled cuisine — is the brainchild of local attorney Rick Newton, who founded the parent company, Nichi Bei Holdings, LLC, in 2016.
Over the past 33 years Newton has twice lived in and multiple times traveled to and through Japan on business. Each time to explore Japan’s culture, history and varied cuisines. For more than a decade Newton has envisioned bringing one of his favorite Japanese cuisines, yakitori, to Alabama.
Beginning with Birmingham pop-up events in 2016, and soon to begin a brick-and-mortar build out in downtown Birmingham’s Ideal Building (on 19th Street North, across from The Pizitz Food Hall), Newton’s vision is closing in on realization.
What Is Yakitori?
At its most basic, yakitori is chicken, skewed on small wood or bamboo skewers, and grilled. Like the word “barbeque”, yakitori is shorthand for combinations of countless variations of skewered, grilled meat and vegetable combinations.
Pork, steak, sea scallops, shishitou peppers, onion, asparagus, even okra, is found on the menus of typical yakitori joints.
Visitors to Japan can see yakitori grills set up on sidewalks, at festivals, flea markets and community events. Sauces, called tare (tah-ray), are closely guarded secrets. In fact, only after frequenting Kyoto’s Okariba restaurant, which specializes in grilled pork, was Newton able to cajole its owner, Aoki-san, to share his pork tare recipe.
“It’s the atmosphere — the casual, friendly, laughing, happy atmosphere one finds in yakitori-ya.
The open grill and often barely controlled chaos just make yakitori-ya, like all izakaya (pubs), the kind of places you just want to while away an evening in,” Newton exclaims.
With small, affordable plates, yakitori-ya are also the type of restaurant guests can wait away hours in.
A fundamental concept of Kyoto Yakitori which Newton seems to obsess over is Authenticity.
“Americans, Birminghamites, are ready, even eager, for the real thing. Fusion is great, I love it and always will and it’s opened many American minds and palates to Asian flavor profiles.
Now I want to offer uncompromising authenticity, and for years, both in Japan and in my own kitchen. I’ve been working on researching and developing a menu that would be quite typical and tasty along a Kyoto, or Tokyo, or Osaka, side street,” says Newton.
“My Japanese friends in Birmingham, along with American friends who have lived in or visited Japan, say I’ve got it right. And along with my own tongue, they’re my toughest judges,” Newton says with a smile. “As we start with meat and vegetables on a grill, I think Alabamians’ yakitori learning curve will be a short one.”
As a University of Alabama exchange student in 1984, Newton lived with his homestay family near Hirakata-shi. About an half-hour train ride to Kyoto.
“It cost me only the price of a train ticket to go into and walk Kyoto, as beautiful a city as you’ll ever find. And I did just that, many, many Saturdays and Sundays. So it became like a second home to me.”
As a public school teacher in 1990-1991 in nearby Hyogo Prefecture, Newton lived about 2 hours away from Kyoto. He took the train into Kyoto more than a few times during his public school teaching days.
Whether on business, leading university groups, or researching his restaurant, Newton never travels to Japan without making Kyoto a destination.
With the Kamo River running through Kyoto’s heart, the mountains surrounding its slow-paced streets, to the more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that saturate its ancient soul, Kyoto eases the mind and delights the heart.
“I respect the fact that most Kyoto Yakitori guests will not travel to or live in Japan, so I feel a responsibility to, as much as I can, bring Japan, especially my beloved Kyoto, to Birmingham,” says Newton.
In fact, he plans on opening additional Kyoto Yakitori around Alabama over the coming years, perhaps into other Southeast states.
Rick Newton – Founder & Managing Member
Rick Newton practiced employment and contract law for more 25 years before establishing Nichi Bei Holdings, LLC.
“Nichi Bei literally means ‘Japan-U.S.’ and I wanted Kyoto Yakitori’s parent company to reflect my dedication to bringing these two countries closer.”
Over the course of his legal career, Newton represented Alabama restaurants in employment cases. Before that he both waited tables and worked as a short order cook, in Panama City Beach and Tuscaloosa, respectively.
“Those experiences were some years ago,” said Newton,”but they gave me practical experience and taught me invaluable lessons about real restaurant work, which certainly can be fun, but it’s hard work and requires focus and endurance.”
Joshua Braden – Operations Manager
At last week’s Marty’s PM pop-up, Joshua Braden, Kyoto Yakitori’s Operations Manager, worked beside Rick Newton. Bringing years of kitchen and restaurant management experience, truly compliments Newton’s Japan experience.
Braden brings local expertise, having helped open the tap room at Avondale Brewing Company as well as Post Office Pies.
“Rick lived in the neighborhood and we met when I worked for Avondale [Brewing], then Post Office Pies. We ran into each other this past December and we started talking, then all the sudden he wanted to bring me on as his operations manager.
With me having 16 years under my belt in the industry and knowledge of corporate restaurants, I thought with his passion and drive for this vision, I want to be a part of that.”
“When we open the doors, we want people to walk into Japan.”
Japanese culture will permeate the new downtown Birmingham restaurant. The starting point for its interior design will be a typical Japanese yakitori-ya.
“It’s not an American restaurant with just a few Japanese flourishes.” says Newton
“The grill, I’m working with, is an importer out of Los Angeles to bring that in from Japan.
Of course I’ve put my all into this, but both I and our supporters understand this concept is a ‘game-changer,’ a new-but-winning concept for Birmingham. We plan to open the doors this coming autumn.”
When asked about any menu offerings that won’t adhere to his strict authenticity standards, Newton laughed:
“Our sake cocktails are inventive, innovative, creative and mind-blowingly delicious. But over in Japan these days they’re experimenting with sake cocktails and infusions, so to do likewise here is authentic!”
Kyoto Yakitori’s flagship (with more yakitori-ya to come) will be located at the bottom of the Ideal Building, across from the Pizitz Food Hall, on 19th street north. See a recent article for more details.
Pop-up at Marty’s PM
Located in Five Points South, this late-night bar and grub-stop caters to those getting off work late. Marty’s PM is open from 8 pm to 6 am.
“I had the Cabbage-Miso snack, and I have had Rick’s yakitori before, and I absolutely love it.
Although I have never been to Asia, bringing that style of food and atmosphere to Birmingham is phenomenal.”
– Rebecca McCardy
While Marty’s and Kyoto Yakitori may seem to be an odd combination, Newton and Braden feel differently. To them, it’s all about the community.
“At Yakitori restaurants in Japan, everybody hangs out, drinks, eats, drinks, eats, so they keep on ordering, and it’s all small plates. It’s typically two kushi (skewers) per plate.
It’s for groups, or individuals to hangout and enjoy themselves and of course enjoy the community,” said Braden.
It was in April that Joshua Braden found himself shooting the breeze with Marty’s PM owners Phil and Marsha Mims.
When Kyoto Yakitori came up, Phil Mims said, “You’ve got to do a pop-up here!” and that was how Newton and Braden came to take over Marty’s PM’s kitchen on May 25th and 26th.
In between grilling and serving Newton said –
“We really are honored to be here at Marty’s.
This is a Birmingham late-night institution and so many of Marty’s regulars just knocked-off work from some of Birmingham’s best restaurants, so we’re humbled to be cooking for them.”