I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with tonkatsu: tired and probably slightly hungover, early afternoon on a clear, cold Saturday in February 2006, Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. My friend said we should go to this restaurant near his apartment, but I was skeptical. I’m not sure if I’d ever had tonkatsu before that. I must’ve had katsu curry (rice and tonkatsu ladled with curry) at some point, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. We went, stood in line for an hour, and then sat around a table listening to oldies, eating the best food I’ve ever had.
From that day on, tonkatsu were a landmark on my Japanese culinary map. Growing up vegetarian (until I was 12 or so) and in a city with little other than sushi, there’s no reason I would’ve known about tonkatsu before coming to Japan. The yoshoku phenomenon (must read Norimitsu Onishi article on yosohoku) on the whole doesn’t really make it out of Japan. And I guess that’s not really a strange thing: why would an imported food concept be exported back to the area of origin? (I’m sure this happens all the time, to be honest, but…) It’d be like translating English into Japanese on Babelfish and then taking that translation and plugging it into the Japanese to English Babelfish translator. The result would only confuse the natives.
But what if it was an incredibly tasty confusion?
That’s exactly what tonkatsu is. To be more accurate, tonkatsu is pork cutlet battered in egg, covered with panko, and then deep fried. It’s served with white rice, red miso soup, cabbage salad, and some pickled vegetables. The cutlets are covered in sauce and dipped in karashi, a spicy horseradish mustard. The result is almost sinfully delicious. For anyone who thinks Japan is a tofu nation perfect for vegetarians, tonkatsu are one of many dishes that will prove that you are seriously misinformed – the Japanese are, in fact, carnivorous, deep-frying motherfuckers.
Rather than have you all risk clogging your veins with less than the absolute highest quality tonkatsu, I have sought it out for you:
とんき (Tonki) 目黒区下目黒1－1－2
Tonki is supposedly the most famous tonkatsu-ya in Tokyo. The main store is just a quick walk from Meguro Station. They open at 4pm everyday, and generally the seats are full by 4:15. I went on Sunday, January 4th for 初カツ, the first tonkatsu of the New Year, and was the second person in line. There was only one guy behind me, but somehow the place still filled up by 4:15.
The store is lit by an array of clean, white lights that hang from the ceiling. The staff all wear crisp white uniforms and keep a careful watch on all of the customers seated at the smooth, wooden counter – the only seating in the store. Tonki easily had the best service of these three restaurants; I was offered refills on rice and salad almost immediately after I finished eating them.
As in most tonkatsu-ya, there are really only two things to order – ロース or ヒレ. ロース comes from the word “roast,” and ヒレ from “fillet.” The former is a fatty cut, the latter a lean cut. Teishoku of either cut at Tonki cost 1800 yen.
Tonki batter their katsu pretty good and fry it up nice and crispy – the fried edge was falling off of the pork. Interestingly, they also serve their teishoku with 豚汁, a miso-based pork soup, rather than the standard red (dark) miso soup with clams.
Tonki is legendary for a good reason: the place is an experience. The katsu themselves might not have been my favorite, but this will probably be the first of these three that I revisit. The decor and service are amazing, presentation is exquisite, and all the little things are taken care of; the toothpicks are covered with a small, glass beer cup and they serve you a small dish of peanuts with beer – details like that.
まい泉 (Maisen) 渋谷区神宮前4-8-5
Maisen is the second most famous tonkatsu-ya, according to bento.com. The main restaurant is in Aoyama, not far from Omotesando Station. The building is huge; there’s a counter on the first floor and tables on the second floor.
The service is not quite as top notch as Tonki, but Maisen has a menu with more options, including a gluttonous cut of 黒豚 – black pork. For whatever reason, black pork is popular in Japan at the moment. It will run you nearly 3000 yen for a teishoku, but it’s a thick, juicy cut, and probably the one that impressed me the most. (Their normal teishoku are more fairly priced but don’t include the mikan-flavored ice cream you get at the end.) They also bring out a special sauce jar just for the black pork, which has, I think, grated daikon in it.
They didn’t provide any karashi on the plate, although it might have been in a jar on the counter – I was so hungry that I didn’t notice. It was so delicious that it was almost unnecessary, but I love karashi, so I imagine it could have been even better. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go back some time and find out.
勝烈庵 (Katsuretsu-an) 横浜市中区常盤町5-58-2
Katsuretsu-an (it almost looks Chinese if you write it Katsuretsuan) is, according to Japanese Wikipedia (which cites an interesting-sounding book on tonkatsu), one of the restaurants that is often associated with the invention of the term “tonkatsu.” There are two other restaurants that also seem to claim the term as their own, but Katsuretsu-an is the oldest – the Bashamichi location opened in 1924.
Compared to Maisen and Tonki, Kasturetsu-an was relatively quiet when I went on a Saturday for lunch. The place is very nice on both the outside and the inside; it is equipped with a similar wooden counter as in Tonki.
It also shares a relatively limited menu with Tonki. The special named after the restaurant is really a ヒレ cut, but ロース is also an option. The katsu were thinner than the ones at Tonki and Maisen. Karashi was serve yourself, which made me very happy. Overall, they were nice and light and didn’t sit heavy afterwards at all. Perhaps not katsu with much impact, but definitely worthy of a pilgrimage at some point.