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Blether

Tonkatsu (dining)

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Tonkatsu is of course Japan's adaptation of western food's pork cutlet. Talking about tonkatsu here on eGullet recently, and inspired by Prawncrackers's enthusiasm (and excellent home-prepared tonkatsu), I realised that I'm not convinced by the westerners-in-Japan meme that Maisen and Tonki are the pinnacle of the tonkatsu scene here in Tokyo. Casting about, I pulled my 1992 (!) copy of Rick Kennedy's excellent Good Tokyo Restaurants off the bookshelf, (blew off the dust) and looked up tonkatsu. Sure enough, two establishments are listed and they are... Maisen and Tonki. As I have noted elsewhere, Japanese dining site Tabelog lists plenty of tonkatsu-ya more highly-rated by Japanese diners than either of these.

According to Japanese Wikipedia, cutlets were introduced to Japan in the early Meiji period, in the form of beef or chicken, breaded and fried in butter. The western-style restaurant Renga-tei, opened in Ginza in 1895, changed the meat to pork and the frying method to deep oil, and this was the beginning of tonkatsu (source: Ko-unsha's 2002 Igai to shiranai mono no hajimari). Later, beginning in the Showa period, the Tonkatsu created by the restaurant Ponchi-ken in Tokyo's Okachimachi spread throughout the country: pork cutlet served cut-up or in bite-size pieces for easy chopstick-eating, with cabbage, miso soup and pickles.

Now tonkatsu by nature is not gourmet food, though as Butagumi shows it's possible to take a gourmet approach. It's generally a cheap, healthy, balanced meal that appeals to all sorts of people, and tonkatsu places are a dime a dozen. What interests me is, what appeals to Japanese diners to make a tonkatsu-ya more highly rated than others; how valid the eternal Maisen / Tonki axis is; what will appeal to foreign diners (and of course, to me :smile: ); and how well the ratings reflect the reality of the dining experience.

I'm thinking to add to this thread when opportunity permits, each time I'm having tonkatsu and have the time (余裕) to report. When I have the chance I'll be referring to Tabelog and choosing some of the rated places. But I figure, why do it by myself ? Please post your tonkatsu restaurant experiences and let's find the good ones together.

As I post it, this link returns Tabelog's ratings-ordered list of tonkatsu-ya for all of Japan. The top-ranked place isn't even in Tokyo - it's Jintei in Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture. Futaba, Tokyo's top-ranked, comes in 7th...


Edited by Blether (log)

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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First up, Katsusei at Shinjuku-gyoenmae. I thought I'd start close by, so in Shinjuku. By chance the top-rated place in the whole Shinjuku area (3.73/5) is five minutes' walk from my office. It was a beautiful warm late-fall day here and I strolled over there at lunchtime.

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You can see trays lined up on the counter here, each order waiting for its katsu to fry. I had a hire-katsu teishoku (set lunch) for 900yen.

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Everything was good here. The cutlet comes in three pieces, flatter and thinner than most hire-katsu. My guess is that this is to allow the katsu to cook in ten minutes, the same amount that more usual, thicker pieces cook in the not uncommon 20-30 minutes, and that this means the frying's taking place at 120C or 130C (250-270F) as seems often to be the case (yes, I could have asked. No, I didn't. I'm a diner, not an investigative journalist (or a magician, captain)). In any event, the raw meat was a good dark red (tenchou-san was brandishing a batto with the cut slices in it) and cooked up moist, tender and tasty, and the breading exceptionally light and airy, rich with oil but not in an unpleasant way. I waited a reassuring ten minutes or so between ordering and receiving the food.

The cabbage was the usual heap of shredded cabbage, but served still nicely damp from rinsing - no dressing distinct from the tonkatsu sauce, so I used some of that. The sauce followed the usual form by being clove-flavoured (I use it judiciously, it's my one quibble with the tonkatsu genre - well, one of my two if you include shredded cabbage every time :unsure::biggrin: ).

I left with a 'mata yoroshiku onegaishimasu' that I was able to really mean.


Edited by Blether (log)

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The tonkatsu plate is unbearably simple. No slices of cucumber or no wedges of tomato? No sunny lettus or parsely? Where is the mustard? Can you describe what their tonkatsu sauce tastes like?

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I bore it :smile:

I'm not a big fan of Japanese karashi on my katsu - it was in a little lidded pot on the counter, and today I looked at it and left it there. There were also at least shichimi, shoyu and salt.

Can you describe what their tonkatsu sauce tastes like?

No, I can't. I said "The sauce followed the usual form by being clove-flavoured" - it was normal tonkatsu-ya sauce, not very different from the usual. I might have more to say after I have something closer (in time) to compare. I think this was my second tonkatsu of the year.

I remember you mentioned Yotsuya's Sankin as a favourite, and of course simple / elaborate, crunchy/soft, traditional/modern decor, friendly/reserved service and so on are all a matter of personal taste. What do you look for in particular in tonkatsu, if anything ? What's your favourite in your area of Niigata ?


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The tonkatsu plate is unbearably simple. No slices of cucumber or no wedges of tomato? No sunny lettus or parsely? Where is the mustard? Can you describe what their tonkatsu sauce tastes like?

At restaurants which specialize in katsu, at leat the ones I've been to, the plate is always very simple. No sunny lettuce or parsely. No cucumber. Definitely no tomatoes. Just cabbage and the katsu of whatever type, plus your rice and miso soup. Karashi is usually in a little bowl, free for the taking (I never use it), as are tsukemono and the sauce(s) for the katsu and the dressing for the cabbage.

I suspect speciality katsu places don't feel the need to dress up their plates, especially since the focus should be the katsu, not the prettiness of the plate.

How does Wako compare to Katsukura, I wonder? Wako isn't very common in my part of Japan (mostly in suburban malls or the like), so I've not tried it. But I've been going to Katsukura for more than a decade and it was my first experience with really good katsu, so it has a special position in my katsu rankings. :smile:

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Can I ask a stupid question? What is "sunny lettuce"?

Thanks!

SusieQ

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It's just a leafy lettuce (ie. more like romaine than head lettuce) that's green, but becomes kind of reddish brown closer to the edges. Adds a bit of colour to an otherwise dull plate. If you google images for "sunny lettuce", you can see some pictures.

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I really enjoyed the meal at Wako that we had last week in the Diamond City mall Fukuoka. It had a very good family atmosphere and nice decor. I ordered the mixed set and the wife had the plain pork loin katsu. The mix set included a medallion of pork loin, prawns and a mushroom croquette. Oh and we ordered some oysters on the side too. I'm just a sucker for a good frito misto I suppose! The crust on all the items was spot on, light, crispy and just the right amount of oily richness. There was a lovely citrusy dressing for the cabbage and two types of sauce, the regular sort and a miso based one which was much tastier. I'm with Blether on this one, i can take or leave the regular Tonkatsu sauce. That's why i was really impressed with the miso based one, it was very savoury indeed. The pork was lovely and juicy too which me wished I had ordered just the pork for myself.

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Prawncrackers: I'm more impressed by the chawanmushi than the tonkatsu. :biggrin:

Blether: I have two restaurants in mind:

Restaurant Kado

Ninjin Tei

I've been to the former several times before. They serve very good tonkatsu and beef katsu, and the portions are large!

I've never been to the latter, but it's very popular among young people who visit Yuzawa for skiing.

I'll report back when I visit one of them in the future.

prasantrin: Thanks for the confirmation. I forgot to mention in my previous post that a wedge of lemon was also missing in the tonkatsu plate.

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It's just a leafy lettuce (ie. more like romaine than head lettuce) that's green, but becomes kind of reddish brown closer to the edges. Adds a bit of colour to an otherwise dull plate. If you google images for "sunny lettuce", you can see some pictures.

Thanks, Prasantrin! Food names are so interesting. Here in Seattle (and all over the Pacific Northwest) I've never seen any other name than "red leaf lettuce" for that type of lettuce. (It's usually sitting right next to "green leaf lettuce" in the stores -- which looks pretty much the same as red leaf lettuce but has no red on it.)

SusieQ

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prasantrin: Thanks for the confirmation. I forgot to mention in my previous post that a wedge of lemon was also missing in the tonkatsu plate.

Another odd thing about tonkatsu restaurants--I'm only given a lemon wedge if I've ordered the ebi plate or the combo tonkatsu-ebi plate. I love lemon with my tonkatsu, so I kind of miss it when it's not there.

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I really enjoyed the meal at Wako...

Great pictures as usual, Prawncrackers. I dunno, it's almost as if a there's special kind of light wherever you go. Spooky ! :smile:

I was admiring the chawanmushi earlier, too. That's unusual as part of a tonkatsu set. I like chawanmushi. I haven't (that I remember) eaten at any of the Wako branches - I must do that at some point. The citrusy dressing in tonkatsu-ya is normally based on (or contains) yuzu and soy - it is good, isn't it ?

Hiroyuki, I've skied in Yuzawa (though it seems these days all the young people are on snowboards - it's only us wrinkly, crusty types who're still on skis). It's also on some of the motorbike touring routes we do, and this summer we were in the area again by car when we made a trip up to Arupu no Sato. I'm always interested to hear stories from the Snow Country.

Prasantrin, I like lemon with my tonkatsu, too. I could swear I've had it sometimes at tonkatsu-ya even when just ordering the pork, though I don't remember where or when.


Edited by Blether (log)

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When I had the opportunity recently, I asked a Japanese friend (in his early 60's) who comes from coastal Kanagawa, a little about tonkatsu. He agrees that Wako is good. What especially interested me is that he said that back in the day, tonkatsu was considered a luxury - well, to eat meat was considered a luxury. He says it was the sort of thing you might be able to have once a month, as a treat, and concurs that Ueno / Okachimachi / Kanda have the greatest concentration of tonkatsu-ya.

I forgot to mention in my first post, that I'll also be referring for inspiration to Mikami-san's 'Tonkatsu tabe-aruki nikki' ('Walker's Tonkatsu diary') - click on the restaurant name in the left column for details in each case (Japanese language only). Ueno is the major centre that's right next to Okachimachi. I'm intrigued by the top three entries: listed as "The Big Three of Ueno" ('上野とんかつ御三家').


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When I had the opportunity recently, I asked a Japanese friend (in his early 60's) who comes from coastal Kanagawa, a little about tonkatsu. He agrees that Wako is good. What especially interested me is that he said that back in the day, tonkatsu was considered a luxury - well, to eat meat was considered a luxury. He says it was the sort of thing you might be able to have once a month, as a treat, and concurs that Ueno / Okachimachi / Kanda have the greatest concentration of tonkatsu-ya.

I forgot to mention in my first post, that I'll also be referring for inspiration to Mikami-san's 'Tonkatsu tabe-aruki nikki' ('Walker's Tonkatsu diary') - click on the restaurant name in the left column for details in each case (Japanese language only). Ueno is the major centre that's right next to Okachimachi. I'm intrigued by the top three entries: listed as "The Big Three of Ueno" ('上野とんかつ御三家').

I'm in my late 40s, and I'd say meat was still a luxury item when I was a kid.

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Well, there's only so much simple stew and "world's hottest chilli" that a guy can eat without a change, so tonight, first tonkatsu of the year - 'hatsu-katsu'. It's still kinda chilly, so again not too far away - Sankin (三金) at Yotsuya-mitsuke.

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Sankin are proud to have been in business for 50 years, and this is their 特ひれかつ定食 or special hire-katsu meal, at JPY1,650, evening service (currently a special - it's normally JPY1,850). The waiter explained that this is their 定番 teiban, the dish they're famous for. It has 1.5 times the amount of meat in their ordinary hire-katsu meal. It's also saved from being too plain by a splendid piece of parsley.

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I was delighted to find some of that yuzu-soy dressing for the cabbage, and gave it a good work out. The miso soup features shijimi.

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Here you can see the meat - good, thick, tender Japan-raised pork. The crust is the more standard dry, crispy type, with smaller crumbs. Sankin only rates a 2.87 at Tabelog, but there's nothing wrong with the food. The decor is definitely old-fashioned, reminiscent of Doutor or Pronto cafes. That won't help it to be popular with the young crowd. This picture is captioned とにかく、浮気がないのです, or "anyway, there's no atmosphere". So cruel !

Reading back I noticed that my link to Katsusei かつ精 isn't working - hopefully this will do more than return the list of search results and go direct to the Katsusei page.


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Thanks for your photos and description! They sure bring back memories! I was 23 when I visited the restaurant for the first time.

活気がない, well, maybe, but I would describe the restaurant nice and quiet.

(By the way, 活気 not 浮気 (uwaki, love affairs)!)

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I was hoping for 浮気  :smile:


Edited by Blether (log)

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In defense of Sankin, I provide this link, which I think better conveys the atmosphere of the restaurant.

I think it's the question of whether you prefer a somewhat noisy restaurant frequented by young people or you prefer a comfortable, quiet restaurant.

I'm not affiliated with Sankin.

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A couple of enjoyable tonkatsu meals from my last Japan trip:

Katsukura in Takashimaya Times Square, Tokyo (unless someone who can read the chopstick wrapper is about to prove my memory wrong). Lusciously fatty kurobuta rosu katsu. And I really loved the yuzu dressing.

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Rosu katsu and ebi fry set (and yes, I know I shouldn't have used my pestle to stir the sauce - what can I say, I'm a heathen). This is in Osaka but I can't recall what restaurant..

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Katsukura (and the pestles of doom! :raz:) in Kyoto. The cabbage here was so incredibly juicy and moreish, I ate about three serves. Though I think this branch actually had sesame dressing rather than yuzu.

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I don't think the first picture is from Katsukura, just because Katsukura doesn't have bottles of dressing. They use a ceramic vat-thing and bamboo ladles. The kanji looks like Wako, but I can't guarantee that's correct.

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Yes, thanks for the report from Wako, RRO. That's one of the best-known chains, with a good reputation for quality. I expect we'll see more from there (and of course we have Prawncrackers' report from Wako in Fukuoka at #8 here).


Edited by Blether (log)

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Had menchi-katsu for dinner last night. No pic as I'm posting from work.

And in any event, not terribly interesting. Pretty much your standard patty of ground beef, breaded with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. :blink: And served with tonkatsu sauce, uh ... sliced corn on the cob, :blink: french fries and broccoli. And Japanese rice. Talk about starch overload.

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Had menchi-katsu for dinner last night. No pic as I'm posting from work.

And in any event, not terribly interesting. Pretty much your standard patty of ground beef, breaded with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. :blink: And served with tonkatsu sauce, uh ... sliced corn on the cob, :blink: french fries and broccoli. And Japanese rice. Talk about starch overload.

Was this at a restaurant? Rice and French fries? Hhmmm

I'm not really a fan of menchi katsu but one if the supermarkets by me used to have a menchi katsu that was half ground meat ( probably pork or a beef pork mix) and half cabbage. The cabbage added a nice flavor and made it o much lighter. I'm not sure if they still sell them as I haven't bought them in quite some time. This was a pre-cooked item in the take- away area and sometimes you could get them still hot and crispy.


Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Yes, it was at a restaurant.

It's a new place I discovered a while back that's 3 blocks from my apartment.

There are a ton of differences with this restaurant from other Japanese restaurants. For example, that ubiquitous carrot-ginger dressing isn't as sweet nor is it neon-orange. There's more of a pronounced ginger flavor as well as more sesame oil used in the dressing.

It's the first place I've seen that regularly serves shioyaki. Their salt-broiled mackerel is excellent.

And their dinner bento boxes have no comparison. Usually comes with salad or soup, sashimi, one fried dish, one grilled dish, one simmered dish, a selection of pickles, Japanese rice and more.

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