Tonkatsu. Pork cutlet covered with Japanese-style bread crumbs (panko) and deep fried. It sounds so simple and straightforward that I have to wonder: how different could tonkatsu be from restaurant to restaurant? How do chefs distinguish theirs from the others? These are the questions I explored during my recent trips to two tonkatsu restaurants in the Tokyo area.
Tonkatsu belongs to a category of food called yoshoku, Japanese interpretations of Western cuisine. It’s basically Japan’s take on schnitzel or American chicken fried steak and commonly eaten with a thick type of Worcestershire sauce and mustard. You can be forgiven for not being able to spot the Western influence right away. Served with rice, a heaping mound of shredded cabbage, a bowl of pork-miso soup (tonjiro), tonkatsu has developed into something that now feels distinctively Japanese. You can also find tonkatsu served with curry (katsu curry rice), in sandwiches (katsu sando), and with eggs on top of rice (katsu don).
Tonkatsu normally comes in two cuts, rosu-katsu (pork loin) and hire-katsu (fillet). Rosu is the regular cut and is the juicer, tastier, but fattier of the two. Hire is the leaner, healthier, and usually more expensive cut (though you wonder if there is much of a difference health wise since it all gets deep fried anyway).
I’ve been to several tonkatsu restaurants, including such major chains as Wako. But for this article, I focus on two shops: a small, family-owned shop called Maru-ichi in the suburban Tokyo neighborhood of Omori and a large, highly regarded restaurant called Maisen in the posh Omotesando area.
A 90 degree (35 degree Celsius) day may not be the ideal time to go out for tonkatsu, especially if it includes a 30 minute train ride to the outskirts of Tokyo. But my friend and fellow food adventurer TC found out about a restaurant called Maruichi that is supposed to be amazingly good. So we had to go out there and see for ourselves.
Located a short walk away from the Omori JR train station, Maruichi is small. There are two tables that seat a total of eight people, with about another eight seats at the counter, which surrounds the deep fryer. Manning the fryer is Yamagawa-san, who learned his craft from his late father, while his wife and mother assist with other aspects of the operation. Despite the humble surroundings, Maru-ichi is one of those restaurants that pays a lot of attention to the details of their ingredients, including domestically produced pork from northeastern Japan and vegetables from specific prefectures that are known for their quality and taste.
Maruichi offers both the rosu and hire katsu in various sizes. TC and I ordered the 250 gram (nearly 9 ounce) rosu-katsu which came with the standard rice, shredded cabbage, tonjiro, and pickles. You can also get the rosu-katsu in 170 gram (6 ounce) or 300 gram (10.5 ounce) sizes, while the hire-katsu is offered in 170 gram and 250 gram sizes only.
Sure enough, our tonkatsu was noticeably larger than others I have eaten. It was nearly an inch thick, juicy, and the meat was interspersed with sizable layers of soft, sweet fat. More health conscious folks who are watching their figure and cholesterol might be scared away by this, but TC and I found it blissfully delicious. The outside was covered in deep fried panko and had a great crunch, and did not taste oily at all.
We were also impressed with Maruichi’s tonjiro, the miso and pork broth that is often served along with tonkatsu. Maruichi’s soup was particularly rich and deep in flavor, and I think it might be the best tonjiro I have had so far.
On the other side of the spectrum is Maisen, one of the most famous and best regarded tonkatsu restaurants in the city. Located in Omotesando, the Beverly Hills of Tokyo with a tree-lined main boulevard that has been compared with the Champs Elysee in Paris, Maisen is geared towards a more high-end clientele.
The restaurant occupies a former bathhouse and has the floor space to serve many times the number of customers than the tiny Maru-ichi. You can choose from several seating arrangements — standard Western-style tables, Japanese tatami room, and a diner-style counter. On this trip, I sat in the tatami room, which was nice, comfortable and brightly lit.
Maisen also pays a lot of attention to ingredients, offering customers a selection of different kinds of pork. For example, there’s kurobuta (“black pig,” also known as Berkshire pork) , a type referred to as “Tokyo X” which is apparently extra juicy, and another specially featured pork that is supposed to be extra sweet and so limited in quantity that there is only enough to serve five customers per day. On this trip, we got the limited edition pork and the kurobuta. Both were about 100 grams, at least half as thick as the one I ate at Maruichi, and more expensive.
The special was indeed quite sweet and tender, probably from the fat content but without the noticable fat layers of the pork at Maru-uchi. The kurobuta semmed less fatty than the special, yet tender and soft, with a more intense pork flavor. The kurobuta came with its own special sauce that had a fruitier, cherry-like flavor than the standard stuff. Both tonkatsu were encrusted with a ton of crispy panko that stick out from the surface; looking at the pictures afterwards, they look like they are covered in golden coats of fur.
The tonjiro was good and included pieces of gobo (burdock root) in addition to the usual carrots, onions, and pieces pork. It did not have as deep flavor as the one at Maru-ichi, and used thin sliced pork instead of chunks.
So there you have it: a tale of two restaurants with two pork cutlets, each deep fried to perfection. You can’t go wrong with either one, but they are noticeably different.
Maru-ichi could be described as tonkatsu done in a simple, homestyle sort of way. Whereas the pork at Maisen was thinner and possibly tenderized before being cooked, it looked like Maru-ichi took a nice thick, juicy piece of pork and deep fried it to perfection. The highly visible layers of fat in the rosu-katsu may not appeal to everyone, but you also have the option of getting the leaner hire-katsu. Maru-ichi also gives you more bang for the buck: the 250g rosukatsu katsu set costs 1700 yen compared to special pork set at Maisen that started at just over 2000 yen for the 110 gram cut.
In addition, Maru-ichi’s tonjiro has become the standard that I measure every other bowl of tonjiro against, including the one at the more celebrated Maisen. I liked Maisen’s inclusion of gobo, but in my opinion, the rich flavor of Maru-ichi’s tonjiro could not be matched.
Maisen, on the other hand, provides what is arguably a more refined and upscale approach to tonkatsu. You get to choose among different kinds of pork, and the overall tenderness, juiciness, and taste certainly puts it a level above the mid-range tonkatsu chains I had been to previously. You can understand why this place is so well regarded. Maisen is also ideally located for those visiting Tokyo, located a short distance off of the main drag of Omotesando and within walking distance from other major sites like Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, and Yoyogi Park.
My tonkatsu adventures won’t end here. Some locals have told me to go to Tonki in the Meguro neighborhood which is purported to be Tokyo’s most famous tonkatsu restaurant (Maisen is apparently considered number two). Additionally, another friend of mine recommended I check out Kimu Katsu in Ebisu for tonkatsu made from rolled pieces of thinly sliced pork. I hope to visit these places soon and discover more ways you can bread and deep fry pork.Maru-ichi: 1-7-2 Omori Kita, Ota-ku, Tokyo
Business Hours: Mon-Tue & Thu-Sat 11:30am-1pm & 5-7pm. Closed Wed, Sun & holidays Maisen: 4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo
Business Hours: 11am-10pm daily