A Night in Old San Antonio is about tradition on many levels.
For the San Antonio Conservation Society, it is the traditional fundraiser that benefits the preservation of landmarks such as La Villita, HemisFair Park and the River Walk. For the revelers, it could be a tradition to line up for an antichucho, fat bread with mushrooms and melted cheese or some fried green tomatoes and, of course, a beer or two to wash it down with. For the people who work in the booths, it’s a tradition that brings them together with old friends for an evening or two as they transform meatballs into Cowboy Klopse or sauté escargots in garlic butter.
For some of the booth chairmen, the tradition is what is passed down from one friend to another or from parents to their children. That’s the case at the Yak-I-Tori booth in the Chinatown section, which has been running since the late 1970s. Ruby Lehrman was chairman then, and she passed it on to Mary McDonald in 1982, who ran it until five or six years ago, when her daughter and son-in-law, Misty and Joey Boyle, took over.
On Tuesday night, all three generations could be found somewhere in the vicinity of the booth where marinated chicken breast on a stick disappeared almost as soon as it left the grill.
I also have a NIOSA tradition. I work a different booth every year. One year, I made Maria’s tortillas, another year it was bratwurst. The list goes on to include fried mushrooms, Bongo K-Bobs, calf fries and shypoke eggs.
The work this year at Yak-I-Tori consisted of cleaning fat and any skin that may be on the chicken breast before cutting it up and dipping it in a soy sauce-based marinade. It wasn’t hard work, but it did require concentration, and that was greatly abetted by a selection of old favorites, from “Shout” to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” blaring from the sound system.
Terry Wilkins, who has worked the booth for a number of years, showed several of us newcomers, including Harris Sharawi, how to scrape the fat off while Josh Bachman, who has been making yakitori for 15 or years set the pace.
In short order, our shift had prepped our half of the 700 or so pounds of breast meat that the booth sold that night, more than the team expected.
Once the meat is marinated, a second team of workers skewers it before it is placed on the first grill. The meats are moved along until they get to the second grill where they are finished off before they are sold. To meet the demand, the booth needs about 50 volunteers an evening.
Tuesday night traditionally brings a crowd, Joey Boyle says, and this was an exceptionally good opener. Most nights at NIOSA, except for Thursday’s college night, draws customers to the food booths. College night is more about the drinking, though food sales do pick up late in the evening when even the staunchest partygoer needs something to mix with the beer, he says.
At the Yak-I-Tori booth, lines generally form only when the chicken spears are not available. Then, you can hear a hungry customer or two joke about being willing to try one medium rare — not a good idea with chicken.
But once they get that meat on a stick and taste the way the marinade adds sweetness, salt and a little spice to the meat, well, it certainly satisfies a hunger, especially for something that’s not heavy or deep-fried.
Mary McDonald has tried making them at home, but it has never worked out quite the same way. “I have the recipe,” she says. “I know what’s in them, but there’s something about being here that makes it taste better.”
McDonald and Lehrman’s friendship extends beyond NIOSA to the days when Lehrman helped McDonald coach the girls’ basketball team at Concordia. Get the two together and you’ll hear a colorful history of of the Yak-I-Tori booth, dating back to the days when the skewers used to feature vegetables threaded between the chunks of meat. The peppers and onions were eliminated because they cooked much quicker than the meat. The early years also featured facing booths, but that proved a little hard to manage, so the set-up was scaled back to one busy booth.
In the early years, people didn’t know what yakitori was, so “we used to tell them they were eating yak,” Lehrman jokes.
Then they switched to the tag line, “Come get your hot breasts!” And the memory of that sends them into laughter.
That sense of fun has been passed down to the Boyles. “I love it,” Joey says of being at NIOSA four nights each year. “You see people you have seen all year long. It’s like a Mardi Gras for San Antonio.”