Tokyo’s top tonkatsu make for a hefty meal

July 30, 2022 by No Comments

Deep-fried breaded meat dishes are enjoyed in many parts of the world: South American milanesa, Central European schnitzel, and decadent chicken Kyiv. In Japan, appetites are similarly sated by tonkatsu.

A compound of the words “ton” (pork) and “katsu” (short for katsuretsu [cutlet]), this dish is one of many Japanese takes on yōshoku (Western food).

The dish initially appeared deep-fried in butter in an 1895 cookbook, and others say that a pōku-katsuretsu (pork cutlet) served with shredded cabbage popped up on the menu of Ginza restaurant Rengatei four years later — where it remains to this day.

Farther north, in Kanda, is Ponchiken, the restaurant that is credited with serving the first actual tonkatsu in 1929. Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown) area witnessed a boom in places that served tonkatsu around the 1930s, remnants of which can still be found in districts like Jimbocho.

The popularity of the dish is now widespread, from Michelin-recognized restaurants nestled in the capital’s downtown to the chain restaurants of the suburbs — the first of which, Wako, launched in 1958 and has since expanded overseas.

This list could easily be a top 50, but what follows are five prize-fighting tonkatsu specialists in Tokyo chosen for their renown and reasonable prices. So grab some hot mustard and shredded cabbage for your sides and tuck in.

The meat at Taiyo, also recognized by the Michelin Guide, offers up optimal chew. | RUSSELL THOMAS

The meat at Taiyo, also recognized by the Michelin Guide, offers up optimal chew. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Mochi Buta Tonkatsu Taiyo

In explaining the reason for conferring a Bib Gourmand accolade on Taiyo, close to Musashi-Koyama Station, the Michelin Guide cites the restaurant’s use of light batter and comparatively less oil than your average tonkatsu joint. It’s a recipe that has impressed customers and made it pretty tough to get a seat at the nine-chair counter. Reservations will be necessary.

If you’re able to get in, what awaits is a world of sophistication, where classical music plays with the percussive accompaniment of breaded pork gently bubbling in a bronze cauldron of oil. Experiencing the symphony play out from your seat is part of the fun.

The rōsu-katsu (loin fillet) set (¥1,600) gets you tea and chunky shinkō (pickled vegetables) so fresh it’s like they’ve just been made; warming tonjiru (soup with daikon, pork, and konnyaku); a bowl of rice; and the main event itself, encased in pale gold panko.

The word “mochi” in the shop’s name seems more than appropriate when you take your first bite, the fillet is gently tenderized beforehand for optimal chewing. Take a close look and you can almost see it falling apart.

The meal also comes with a mound of sengiri (shredded) cabbage that is best experienced with a dab of the Chinese-style dressing. For cabbage fiends out there, your first refill is on the house.

Koyama 3-22-7, Shinagawa-ku, 142-0062; 03-3786-1464; takeout available

Have some jazz with your loin cutlet at Katsuyoshi, which features a laid-back atmosphere. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Have some jazz with your loin cutlet at Katsuyoshi, which features a laid-back atmosphere. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Katsuyoshi

Make your way to Gakugei-Daigaku Station in Meguro Ward and you’ll be within walking distance of one of Tokyo’s more relaxed tonkatsu shops. Katsuyoshi’s homespun interior features vintage beer advertisements, chunky wooden furniture, and the hum of nocturnal jazz spilling into the space.

The main attraction, the rōsu-katsu set, costs ¥1,830. If you’re not looking to spend as much, though, the regular tonkatsu set is priced at just ¥1,100 and still tastes divine.

The loin cut here is covered with a thick batter unpunctuated by panko; it’s barely used. It’s something of a rarity and results in more of a chew than a crunch.

The cut is also huge, a juicy monster of a fillet that will allow for ample time to soak up the atmosphere as you work your way through it. The set comes with tea, extra-salty miso soup, pickles, and rice. Truthfully, Katsuyoshi represents any number of genuine jimoto (neighborhood) tonkatsu joints: Unhurried, unfussy, and unhyped.

Chuo-cho 1-17-11, Meguro-ku, 152-0001; 03-5704-2110; takeout available

Genta’s cutlets are strong on crunch and the soup set comes with a hefty helping of veggies. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Genta’s cutlets are strong on crunch and the soup set comes with a hefty helping of veggies. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Tonkatsu Genta

If you’re in Daikanyama and looking for a wholesome lunch without the high prices that the neighborhood is known for, direct yourself to Genta.

This subterranean dining spot features a friendly atmosphere with both table and counters seating. The lunch menu is a trove of delicious bargains, with the tonjiru tonkatsu set clocking in at just ¥1,100. If menchi-katsu (minced pork cutlet) is your jam, then you’ll only be set back ¥1,045 for the pleasure.

The crunch factor is strong at Genta, whose cooks deliver a masterclass in deep-fried texture, even if the measure of the meat is fairly modest.

The cuts are leveled up when slathered with the shop’s zingy katsu sauce or some shichimi (seven-flavor spice). Paired with rice, and pickles and washed down with a soup so chock full of veggies that it’s like a meal in itself, lunch here is affordable and filling.

Sarugakucho 24-7, Shibuya-ku, 150-0033; 03-3496-4192

Lunch at Enraku is affordable and delicious, its menu earning Bib Gourmand status from the revered Michelin Guide. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Lunch at Enraku is affordable and delicious, its menu earning Bib Gourmand status from the revered Michelin Guide. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Tonkatsu Enraku

For more in the realm of affordability, check out the deep-fried lunch served at Tonkatsu Enraku in Ota Ward. You’ll almost certainly need to line up outside and wait for a seat, but you can watch the master at work in the meantime — the flames licking the side of the scorched, shining pan he uses while tending to the various breaded fillets within. Using bare hands all the while, his skin must be made of stronger stuff than most. At only ¥1,000, lunch is incredibly cheap.

The 90-gram rōsu-katsu is pliable and succulent, covered in craggy panko that is submerged in lard oil and fried to perfection. Naturally, it comes with cabbage — fresh cut for each order — soup populated with almost unending little pork morsels, carrots and daikon, a plate of rice, and a surprise helping of homemade potato salad adding creaminess to the proceedings.

Enraku is another shop that has earned Bib Gourmand status from the Michelin Guide and there’s no surprise why: Eating this well for so little seems almost too good to be true.

Ikegami 6-1-4, Ota-ku, 146-0082; 03-3754-8243; takeout available

Hinata gives you the choice of different kinds of pork for your meal. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Hinata gives you the choice of different kinds of pork for your meal. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Tonkatsu Hinata

Another spot that’s sure to have a line outside, Hinata in the Takadanobaba area goes the extra mile to extend its hospitality to those waiting. When it is raining, staff will ferry out tea to customers huddled beneath umbrellas and poring over the menu.

Once inside, Hinata delivers a close-quarters affair at a long counter complemented by elegantly simple interiors and stylish hexagonal floor tiles.

Lunch, as per this working city’s custom, is normally a big deal. But here, it is a revelation. You have the option to choose between two different types of pork: kanpō-sangenton, pigs with “three origins” (usually a cross between Berkshire, Duroc, and Landrace breeds) fed on herbs used in Chinese traditional medicine, and roppaku-kurobuta (Berkshire pig).

Once you’ve decided on either the 130-gram regular cutlet for ¥1,000 or the cutlet at 190 grams for ¥1,500, sit back and soak up the ambiance. Both come served with the usual katsu sauce, but the sea salt provided for dipping makes this a bit redundant, albeit delicious.

Additionally, bigger spenders can also book a spot for Hinata’s evening tabe-kurabe (eat and compare) course, involving different cuts of pork from tenderloin to rump, for ¥3,900 per person.

Takadanobaba 2-13-9, Shinjuku-ku, 169-0075; 03-6480-2424; takeout available

Honorable mentions

If you’re up for spending a little bit more, Tonkatsu Narikura is very much a treat. Located in Suginami Ward’s Minamiasagaya neighborhood, Narikura’s tonkatsu set offers up either two (¥5,000) or three (¥6,200) cutlets — including toku rōsu (special loin), ribu-rōsu (rib-eye) and mirufīyu (millefeuille) style — though regular menu items are also available.

The cooking style here is low and slow, resulting in a pale tempura-Esque panko coating coupled with meat that melts in your mouth. Understandably, the menu has nabbed some awards.

Similar accolades go to the equally not-so-wallet-friendly Chawanbu in Yotsuya. Again, the panko here is light and deliciously crispy, but the preparation is different, with whole loins cooked and sliced into meaty medallions for seriously tender results.

Though the menu here features ¥4,000-plus items, more affordable options are available such as the rōsu-katsu set at ¥2,197.

Steps away from Chawanbu are the friendly Tonkatsu Suzushin. They use 100% lard oil for frying here and it’s their katsudon (cutlet on rice with egg; ¥1,300) that is the star of the show.

If you find yourself in the Akihabara electronics district and you’re hankering for some tonkatsu, swing by the shitamachi-style Marugo.

The lines can be enormous (avoid the place on Sundays) but your patience will pay off once you’re inside another of the city’s acclaimed shops. The special rōsu-katsu set (¥2,200) is fairly easy on the budget and very easy on the taste buds.

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