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Yak attack 

Yakitori Jinbei charms with a selection of light, inexpensive bites

"But I'm pretty much broke," my friend proffers as an excuse for not wanting to accompany me to dinner at Yakitori Jinbei. He insists that his appetite far outpaces his wallet and that he knows he'll have to lay down a big chunk of change to fill his belly at a Japanese restaurant. I assure him he'll find plenty to eat for a reasonable price. My wheedling gets the best of him.

Japanese garden: Although it cohabitates in a shopping center with Olive Garden, Yakitori Jinbei inhabits an entirely different world. A side table laden with plastic models of yakitori (the quail egg mock-up is particularly fascinating) is the first thing you see when you enter the small, tidy restaurant. Signs advertising lunch specials and sake offerings in exquisitely neat handwriting adorn the walls. A curtain silk-screened with a woodprint of a squatting sumo wrestler sections off the kitchen from the dining room. A table of golf-shirted Asian businessmen quaff carafe after carafe of sake and get rowdy between bites of yakitori. The staff greets us like old friends. Our shyly smiling waitress is not only efficient and quick with recommendations, she's also exceedingly well manicured.

Don't let the name scare you: Yakitori, char-grilled chicken on skewers, are the house specialty. They're finished with your choice of Japanese sea salt or a special secret sauce whose main component is a house-made soy sauce. The charcoal used for these tasty treats is imported specially from Japan and lends the finished product a distinctive smoky perfume. Tori Kawa ($1.50) is a must for those who like the crispy skin on roasted chicken more than the meat itself. Morsels of creamy chicken skin are grilled until blackened around the edges and dressed with the sweet-tangy secret sauce.

Wakadori ($1.50), young chicken, is as tender as a kiss on the forehead from Mom, and the Japanese sea salt provides a nice crunch to top it off. Peeman Nikuzume's name ($2.50) elicits a giggle, but this skewer is seriously delicious, with its caramel-charred peppers and springy, nutty chicken meatballs. Lunch specials are not just a great value at $6.90; the California roll and choice of teriyaki or tempura won't put you to sleep at your desk.

Crunch time: Yakitori Jinbei's liberal use of fried tempura batter bits wins us over. Given the nasty weather, I'm as happy as a pig in mud to be slurping over a bowl of Tanuki Soba ($7.50), buckwheat noodles with spinach in a seaweed-based broth and topped with tempura crunchies. Spicy tuna crunch sushi roll ($6.80) practically dissolves in the mouth but for the fun touch of batter bits. Ochazuke ($6.80) is an ethereal pleasure of grilled salmon flakes over green tea-soaked rice. Zosui ($9.80), an egg-thickened porridge of chicken, enoki mushrooms and spinach, warms me from head to toe with its creaminess and hint of miso.

As we sip hot tea and rub our contented bellies, our server tells us she's impressed by the amount of food we've eaten. But no one's happier than my friend, who cheerily tells her not only is he filled to the gills, he can also afford to do laundry this week.

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