At tonkatsu eateries, you can try pork at its finest
|Photo gallery: Tonkatsu|
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Say katsu — fried cutlet — in Hawai'i and we think chicken, thickly breaded, singe-the-mouth hot, drizzled with a harsh, gluey sauce concocted of ketchup and Worcestershire, with two scoops cheap rice on a bed of cabbage and Styrofoam.
And then there is katsu as it's understood in Japan. The only commonality: cabbage.
To redefine your understanding of the term, you need only go to Waikiki. Or Kaka'ako.
Tonkatsu — ton meaning piglet, katsu meaning cutlet — is the raison d'etre for the famed Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin restaurant in Tokyo, which opened an outpost here last summer on Beach Walk.
At Bairin, tonkatsu is made from the finest-quality pork (premium kurobuta, "black pig," from Canada, the manager said), the center-cut loin, so moist and yielding, it is said that you can cut it with a chopstick.
And you can. I did, having been urged there by reports from widespread sources: "My friend from Japan said it's the best." "I've eaten at the one in Tokyo, and this is just as good." "You haven't had katsu until you've had Bairin."
The trouble with America's "other white meat" is that the industry, running scared from pork's "fattening" reputation, bred the good grease right out of the animal, substituting a syringe full of saline solution for pork fat's natural moisture and flavor. The result is that there's now a nanosecond between done and overdone in cooking most American pork. Tired of stringy, dry chops and cutlets, many of us stopped ordering or buying them.
Start again at Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin or Imperial Café. There, tonkatsu is a revelation: lightly and crisply breaded (yes, I know menus always advertise "light" breading, but this really is, made from fresh panko), buttery as filet mignon and full of piggy flavor.
Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin is charming: a dozen or so tables fitted into a compact space behind a pair of noren curtains; a counter down its length where chefs work busily, dark wood and lacquer, tasteful pottery dishes.
Chefs, hosts and servers cheerfully call out a welcome (in Japanese or English, depending on your ethnicity), and service is swift and helpful. Our server shyly said that explaining the chef's nightly pupu menu would be "a challenge" in English, but her command of the language was excellent. (For standard menu items, there's also a picture menu with translations.)
Our choices that night included konnyaku goma daki — chunks of boiled, spongy-textured yam paste in a creamy sesame sauce ($4); crab croquettes ($9); and spinach goma-ae — cold spinach and mushroom salad in sesame-tofu dressing ($4). All were in dainty portions, with muted but inviting flavors, attractively presented in mismatched small dishes.
The filling in the croquettes — three of them, with a garnish of the konnyaku, lemon and shredded cabbage — was richly smooth and creamy, perhaps less briny than a true crab lover would like. The konnyaku and spinach both left an impression of lightness and good health.
Meals are served in "sets," with soup (miso with shiso leaf and a little fu — gluten cake — floating on top), tsukemono (salt-preserved cabbage), a generous bowl of rice, a mountain of thready raw cabbage and the customary lemon wedge.
The rice, California-grown, is extraordinary, each grain a distinct tiny pillow of sticky, starchy goodness.
As is traditional in tonkatsu restaurants, at the center of the table is a condiment tray, with a squat crock of tonkatsu sauce fitted with the classic bamboo dipper and a smaller pot of biting mustard. Our waitress explained that the sauce — a mahogany-colored, slow-cooked condiment of fruit (apples are customary), vinegar, sugar, shoyu and other flavorings — is meant not just for the katsu but the cabbage as well, which is not just garnish but an integral part of a tonkatsu meal.
The Tokusen Kurobuta set ($36) is the must-have dish — a half-dozen slices of plump pork loin presented on a small grate (so any juices drain off), to be eaten with sesame seed garnish that you mash yourself in your personal suribachi grinder. Manager Masa explained that Bairin tonkatsu is fried in high-quality cottonseed oil; "afterwards, you don't feel heavy," he promised. This dish was perfection.
But so was my order of shouga yaki — scaloppine-thin slices of pork, ginger-marinated and sauteed ($18), as tender as any I've ever had and brightly flavored, garnished with slivers of bell pepper. Very satisfying if you don't want to order something deep-fried.
My friend's oyako katsudon ($18) also was an exceptional example of its kind (though the most expensive donburi bowl I've ever bought), made with the house-fried cutlet, onions and other vegetables, topped with an egg and steamed over hot rice.
The only disappointment was the fourth member of the party's unremarkable deep-fried shrimp ($20). Stick to the pork here.
The waitress suggested we try the healthful dessert: a soy-milk pudding rather like a panna cotta ($3.50) topped with a coffee jelly (very popular and common in Japan, she told us). This was one that got lost in translation, the soy milk too beany, the coffee stuff too weakly flavored and not sweet enough.
DELICIOUS, YET CHEAPER
Another option: Café Imperial.
A food-savvy fellow 'Tiserite tipped me to a source of excellent — and cheaper — tonkatsu right down the street from the paper, Café Imperial Tonkatsu House, tucked away among shops in the Imperial Plaza condo building on Kapi'olani.
Here, too, is a compact space, welcoming and attentive service, inclusive full sets (lacquer trays, pottery dishes). And, of course, that crunchily crusted, chopstick-tender pork. Imperial's decor is a disconcerting mix of sleek granite tables and dark furnishings set off against amateurish oil paintings and an annoying, always-on flat-screen TV. But servings are generous and prices deflated.
A full lunch of a dozen slices of hire (thick-cut) katsu, plus miso soup, two types of pickle (a sweetish red turnip takuwan and salty tsukemono), potato salad and shredded cabbage with cucumber and tomato plus a large bowl of rice was just $11.75. Try the deep-fried hamburger Japanese know as menchi katsu — a bulging patty, very soft-textured, full of minced onions ($9.75).
Also available is the usual tonkatsu-ya fare: katsu curry ($11-$12 range), donburi rice bowls ($8.75-$10.75), noodles ($7.50-$8.50) and other izakaya standards.
Another difference from Bairin is in the tonkatsu sauce. Imperial's is typical; so robust that it almost overpowers the tonkatsu. Bairin's sauce was more balanced; the fruity sweetness counteracting the bite of vinegar and spices.
As you contemplate which spot to visit first, consider this bit of tonkatsu trivia, from my friend, Japanese food expert Elizabeth Andoh: It's believed tonkatsu arrived in Japan around the time of the Russo-Japanese war (1905), a conflict Japan won. In the kind of wordplay the Japanese love, the verb katsu is "to win." So katsu is a dish people like to eat before a competition.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.