A perfectly prepared tonkatsu—a thick, juicy pork cutlet enrobed in a golden crust of crisp breadcrumbs—is a thing of beauty. Achieving such perfection, though, is not easy. The cutlet must be properly sourced and sized. The oil must be fresh and kept at the exact scalding temperature. And the flake size of the crumb must be carefully considered.
The dredging in flour, beaten egg, and bread crumb must be done quickly and expertly. The chef must keep a wary eye and ear on the frying process watching the changing hue of the coating, the size and rate and sound of the rising steam-filled bubbles, and the buoyancy of the frying katsu.
A tonkatsu meal will always include a small mound of finely shredded cabbage, and some type of tangy Worcestershire-based sauce handy on the table. If you order a teishoku set menu, you’ll get a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso or tonjiru (pork broth) soup, and a small dish of pickles.
In the restaurants that take pride in their work, the cabbage filaments are cut by hand, the pickles are house-made, and the soup is too.
If you’re looking for pork heaven, never mind that former bathhouse place that’s in all the guidebooks. Search out one or all of these establishments chosen from my favorite tonkatsu places across the city.
Bairin in Ginza started serving tonkatsu in 1927. And their 200-gram kurobuta (Berkshire pig) cutlet is two centimeters of tender luscious goodness. This rosu cut includes a thin strip of tasty melt-in-your-mouth fat beneath the crisp breading. Unusually, and aesthetically pleasing, the mound of sweet cabbage includes dark green filaments from the outer leaves.
The handiwork at Bairin runs as smooth as a fine pocket watch. In a row behind the long counter stand four white uniformed cooks each precisely doing his appointed task: frying, cutting, preparing side orders, and ladling out soup and rice. Another cook in the kitchen provides a constant staccato of hocho knife chopping fresh cabbage.
Though a bit pricey, the 2,700-yen rosu katsu teishoku is very well worth it. The house-made sauce at Bairin is especially toothsome.
A few minutes from JR Omori station, Maru-ichi is a tiny place with only a 7-seat counter and two tables each seating four. The menu is small too. All orders are teishoku sets. You can choose either the lean hire or the succulent rosu each at several weights: 170 grams (1300 yen), 250 grams (1700 yen), or for the genuine trencherman, the 300-gram plate.
All the ingredients at Maru-ichi are carefully sourced. The pearly pink cutlets come from Iwate. The red-orange carrots are grown in Chiba, and the surprisingly sweet cabbages are harvested in the Miura peninsula.
Compared to other tonkatsu joints, their rice is softer and more delicious; the carrots and cabbage sweeter; the meat more tender and flavorful. This is due to the great care that goes into everything at Maru-ichi. They go to the trouble, for example, of boiling the carrots, burdock, and onions separately to make sure they are evenly tender before adding them to pork-based miso soup to make their tonjiru.
Don’t mind the drab exterior of Maru-ichi. The interior is spotlessly clean and all efforts at beauty are focused on the plate.
They feature sangenton pork from Yamagata prefecture. This crossbreed animal is a mix of Yorkshire, Landrace, and Duroc hogs which results in a fine balance of flavor and lacy marbling in the flesh.
The rosu is three centimeters thick, terrifically juicy and tender (1750 yen). They also boast a special dressing for the cabbage.
Worth a trip to Kuramae, one stop from Asakusa, is Sugita (pictured above). This nicely designed restaurant with its second-generation chef and gleaming copper pots serves a tonkatsu (2000 yen) with a bread crumb as fine as sand which makes an especially crispy crust. Of course, they also have their own specially blended sauce.
The folks at Yamaichi in Kanda Sudacho serve a tonkatsu that is thicker than at most other tonkatsu joints. It is expertly trimmed, weighed, and coated with a larger size of bread crumb too. The teishoku sets feature a reasonably-priced hire (1600 yen) or the rosu (1500 yen) with its strip of delicious fat nestled in unctuousness under the crust.
Yamaichi believes in condiments. On the table are a panoply of 11 various additions to choose from such as Andes salt, yuzu kosho, shichimi, two kinds of shoyu, pickled scallions, mustard, two kinds of salad dressing, sesame, ponzu sauce, umeboshi, and bull-dog sauce.
Yamaichi is decorated with some style. The tables are dark, gleaming grainy wood. Framed modern lithographs hang on the wall. Don’t worry about the line that usually forms outside the restaurant. It moves quickly and you’ll soon be inside. Be sure to spot the little Shinto shrine tucked into corner near the ceiling.
Ginza Bairin: 7-8-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3571-0350. Open 7 days a week (except January 1.) 11:30 am – 8:45 pm. Cash only. www.ginzabairin.com.
Maru-ichi: 1-7-2 Omori Kita, Ota-ku. Tel: 03-3762-2601. Lunch 11:30 to 1 pm. Dinner 5 pm to 7 pm. Closed Wednesdays, Sundays, and National Holidays. Maru-ichi is about a 2-minute walk from the East exit of Omori Station.
Yamaichi: 1-8-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3253-3335. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2:30pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8:30pm. Saturdays: 11am to 2pm (L.O. 1:30pm). Closed Sundays and holidays.
Marugo: 1-8-14 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3255-6595. Lunch 11:30am to 2:50pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:20pm. Closed Mondays and third Tuesdays. About 4 minute walk from Akihabara station.
Sugita: 3-8-3 Kotobuki, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3844-5529. Lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:30pm. Closed Thursdays. About one-minute walk from subway exit A5 of Kuramae station.