This is not the best time to open a new restaurant. The typical challenges have become intense, to say the least, and those obstacles don’t include the threat of being ordered to close if dining out is deemed too dangerous by the state government.
But chefs and restaurateurs are like artists—they need to create. It’s ingrained. And in some ways, the pandemic has created a different kind of fuel for their fire.
Mitsuo Endo, the James Beard Award nominee whose inimitable influence on the off-Strip dining scene began with the spectacular Aburiya Raku in 2008, unveiled his latest concept on July 3 with Raku Toridokoro, a yakitori restaurant dedicated to chicken. It’s located near the Palms in the intimate space where Endo opened Tatsujin X, a unique take on teppanyaki, last year. He has replaced Tatsujin’s flat-top grill with a robata, upon which he’s skewering and charcoal-grilling every part of the bird you can imagine … and some you probably can’t.
Toridokoro is something new for Endo and for Las Vegas. Some of those new restaurant challenges don’t apply to the chef, who helped develop Las Vegas Chinatown as a must-visit dining destination for locals and tourists through the original Raku and the dessert wonderland Sweets Raku, which he opened with pastry chef Mio Ogasawara in 2013
“I didn’t have a plan for this,” he says, speaking through an interpreter, about his success and expansion in Las Vegas. “I was surprised. Compared to when I first [arrived] and now, the overall restaurant quality is so high [now] and the customer’s expectations are also high.”
Toridokoro hones in on one aspect of cooking that Endo popularized locally with the original Raku. “This one is more traditional, a real Japanese yakitori [place]. I just wanted to make a chicken specialty restaurant in Las Vegas, because I didn’t see any. This is the first and only chicken restaurant.”
All the chicken comes from a single farm in the LA area, where the fowl are raised for six months; most others can take just a month to 12 weeks. Toridokoro’s chicken is 100 percent organic and delivered fresh almost daily, Endo says.
You can sample everything with the chef’s omakase menu ($75, with optional $50 or $80 sake pairings), or take your pick from smoky skewers of wing, breast, thigh, neck, gizzard, heart, liver and more ($4-$5 each). There are vegetable skewers, too, along with other dishes like deep-fried tofu ($8); Yodare Dori ($11), which is boiled chicken breast in a spicy sauce; fried chicken cartilage ($6); and the somewhat controversial Tori Tataki ($8), seared sashimi-style chicken.
The restaurant caused a bit of buzz among local foodies when images and social media posts from preview dinners indicated raw chicken would be on the menu. Endo was actually serving small slices of lightly poached chicken liver, breast and gizzard, along with a hot stone for customers to sear the meat themselves.
As expected, Raku regulars who couldn’t wait to get back to their favorite restaurant on Spring Mountain Road have started to discover Toridokoro. Endo’s offerings are imagined as unique experiences and aren’t really built for takeout, but he says he’ll shift into a different operational mode if necessary. The original Raku has been serving a takeout menu in recent months.
“I don’t have any special problems” because of the pandemic, he says. “I’m just doing what I need to do.”
RAKU TORIDOKORO 4439 W. Flamingo Road, 702-337-6233. Monday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-midnight.