SIZZLE STICKS: Grilled skewers of meat make up the heart of Gaku's menu. Photograph by Zach Davenport

I don’t speak Japanese, but I bet there’s a saying that equates to “jack of all trades master of none.” One of the things I love about Japanese culture is the reverence for singular pursuits, be it calligraphy, martial arts, sword making or cooking.

The new documentary Jiro Dream of Sushi profiles 86-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, owner of Tokyo’s three Michelin-star sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Ono has been perfecting his sushi skills for 75 years, and he still sees room for improvement. There’s a Japanese word for someone with that kind of zeal and dedication. It’s “shokunin,” and it means an artisan or craftsman. The concept speaks to Japan’s culture of self-mastery and specialization. 

While there are plenty of Japanese restaurants in Silicon Valley with encyclopedic, noodle-to-sushi menus, my favorite are the ones that specialize in one thing and do it very well. 

Sumiya was one such restaurant. The shoebox of a restaurant specialized in yakitori, charcoal-grilled skewers of meat, fish and vegetables. But in 2008, a fire in a Chinese restaurant next door damaged Sumiya, and the restaurant closed.

Sumiya has since reopened on Homestead Road in Santa Clara, while Gaku opened on the site of the old Sumiya. For me, the new Gaku is better than the old Sumiya, because there are even more yakitori items. While the yakitori chefs here have not put in the years that sushi master Ono has, the bandanna-wearing chefs are dedicated to their craft: the grilling of little skewers of food.

Think of Gaku as a Japanese tapas restaurant. The mini-kebabs and side dishes are meant to be paired with beer, sake and shochu. Most of the food is salty and fatty (in a good way), a perfect match for alcoholic refreshment. (The restaurant offers private taxi service for those who’ve had too many.)

The skewers are cooked on a skinny, rectangular grill box over binchotan, a premium grade of slow-burning hardwood charcoal from Japan. There’s a big window in the dining room so diners can watch the cooks at work.

Gaku offers more than 20 kinds of yakitori plus regular specials. Chicken is a good place to begin. There is grilled chicken thigh and breast (both $3), but go for something more interesting like the tsukune (chicken meatball, $2.50), nankotsu (knee cartilage, $3) or the excellent kawa (grilled chicken skin, $3).

Speaking of chicken skin, you have to order the chicken “chip,” a flatted and fried section of chicken skin that comes out like a big tortilla chip ($6). It’s served with a creamy, thousand islandlike dip and is just great. Trust me.

Tsukimi tsukune (two skewers for $6) takes its name from the Japanese word for moon. It’s a stumpy, sausage-shaped chicken and pork meatball, with a raw egg (the moon) in a side dish for a dipping sauce. The blistered meat and creamy richness of the egg yolk make it really good.

On my visit, the grilled pork belly wrapped around bamboo shoots and red bell pepper was listed as a special ($4), and indeed it was. Pork belly has a way of making things special.

While the menu is very meat-centric, my favorite item was the marinated and seared celery ($5). Yes, celery. Celery never plays a starring role, but this might be the best celery dish I’ve ever had.  The celery is marinated in a light soy and sesame sauce, grilled and served cold.

For drinks, Sapporo and Asahi are available on tap as well as the excellent Yebitsu beer ($6) in a bottle. The real star of the drink menu is the shochu, a distilled beverage made from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, brown sugar and buckwheat.

Gaku offers lots of sake, too, but the extensive list of shochu invites exploration. Pair a glass with a few salty skewers off the grill and savor the fruits of Gaku’s shokunin.

Gaku Yakitori
5152 Moorpark Ave., San Jose
408.973.9144