Okachimachi Station near Ueno is a hive of activity. It sits at the tail end of the Ameyoko street market and seems to be under constant construction and reconstruction. Kasuga dori is the main thoroughfare perpendicular to the Yamanote tracks and after a short walk down that main street you’ll spot the pit viper shop, Bunkyudo, the write-up of which you’ll find in the January 2009 archives of this blog. Next to Bunkyudo is a narrow passageway called “Tanuki Roji” which translates to Racoon Alley.
Down Racoon Alley on the left you’ll come upon Tonpachi, a fine tonkatsu joint. I first found Tonpachi a handful of years ago when it was still being run by the second-generation master. It was a narrow, dark, atmospheric eatery that despite its decrepitude turned out a tasty tonkastu. In my absence, the place has been gutted and rebuilt into a narrow bright, still somewhat atmospheric eatery run now by the third-generation master.
The master is a talkative fellow. He explains that his great grandfather started the tonkatsu shop nearly 70 years ago. The grandfather, though, wasn’t much interested in pigs or cooking so he opened a coffee shop instead which is now defunct. The master’s father took over the business and just recently retired. The old shop had to be remodeled, he adds, because things here and there were falling apart.
The thick pork cutlets at Tonpachi hail from Chiba. The filiment-cut cabbage is sourced wherever it is sweetest, says the master. The very narrow shop is mostly counter and kitchen with a small table for two and a less small table for four. A television set above the “oshibori” steamer seems permanently set to samurai dramas. His wife assists. Every so often she opens the oshibori heater and spritzes the heated towels with a fragrant mist. They have what could be Tokyo’s best smelling hot towels. I spent a long moment inhaling the fresh soap scent with the towel pressed to my nose.
The “ros” tonkatsu set (1700 yen) comes with a mound of that fine cabbage, a dollop of potato salad, a small bowl of very fine house-made pickles: turnip, carrot, cucumber and Chinese cabbage, and a bowl of miso soup loaded with tofu and bits of pork. The breading on the cutlet is flaky and crisp. The master prefers the slower, slightly cooler frying temperature that some other tonkastu joints use.
The more expensive “hire” or filet cutlet is also fine. Oysters and crab are in season now, and Tonpachi offers a set featuring either of those for 1400 yen. On the counter is an array of condiments: Worchestershire Sauce, the house-made tonkatsu sauce, and a tiny pot of mustard. Also is a cute little toothpick dispenser. Push the crow down and he’ll pick up a toothpick in his beak.
From my counter seat, we chat about Tokyo and how much it’s changed in 30 years. Raccoon Alley got its moniker from an old coffee shop named Raccoon,says the master, that used to be situated nearby. Not his grandfather’s place, though, he adds. Nor were ever any real raccoons about.
When I finish and am sipping a cup of green tea, the master points to a box of shop namecards at the end of the counter near the door.
“I’ll take one,” I say, “and I’ll recommend this place to my friends.”
“Please!” he says. “Take four or five or six.”
Tonpachi Tei: 4-3-4 Ueno, Taito-ku. 03.3831.4209