On Saturday morning in Tokyo, I woke up with a hankering for a really good tonkatsu. It was my last day in Japan before returning to Manila, and I could have had any meal I wanted in a city with the world's best restaurants, the world's most delicious unknown holes in the wall, and the world's most Michelin stars.
I toyed with the idea of going to Crescent, which is kind of out of the radar of foreign foodies for some reason, but it's a pretty long-running restaurant that Japanese foodies consider among the top five restaurants in Tokyo. It's French and quite classic, but influenced by the kaiseki-style of Japanese food.
THIRD TIME LUCKY?
Then there was the option of another teppanyaki lunch, which was incredibly tempting to do. When I'm in Tokyo, there's only three things I concentrate on food-wise: beef, sushi/ sashimi and kaiseki meals, because I've never had truly amazing versions of these outside Japan. But if I did teppanyaki again on Saturday, that would've made it my third teppanyaki meal over three days (and I will write about those teppanyaki meals soon).
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Then suddenly, all I wanted was an excellent tonkatsu. It's pretty basic food but it's the fourth dish that's impossible to get in a truly amazing way outside of Japan. It's a matter of the quality of the pork and the way it's cooked. The really good tonkatsu restaurants in Japan have chefs who have been doing tonkatsu -- and only tonkatsu -- for 10 or 20 years, so of course, they're going to be amazing at it.
Meanwhile, any restaurant outside Japan (or at least 99.9% of these restaurants) will never be able to specialize save for sushi, because of the need to cater to a market that isn't used to specialization. So even if a chef is able to import Japanese pork and bread crumbs to make a good tonkatsu, his frying skill will not be on par with the best of Japan simply because he can't specialize in tonkatsu alone.
Anyway, it was tonkatsu I wanted on Saturday, and I wanted a place I hadn't been to yet. My friends will tell you this is very uncharacteristic of me, as I am a fierce creature of habit and my life revolves around a set of restaurants and hotels.
NOT YOUR USUAL PLACE
And in Tokyo, if I want a good tonkatsu, or if a friend from abroad asks me where to go for one, I usually send them to the famous places because these are easily accessible, a painless process even if you don't speak Japanese, and they have all the branded stuff foodies with big budgets like -- pork from the famed Kagoshima black pig or the Okinawa black pig, for instance.
The sign for Maisen
Now locals have more options because the language and accessibility barriers are down. You don't need to stick to Hibiya, Omotesando or Shinjuku for your meal -- Maisen Honten is in Omotesando and Katsukura is in Shinjuku, and these are two of my top recommendations for easy, accessible and delicious tonkatsu.
AND SETTLING FOR #2
But on Saturday I wanted to go very local and new. So we checked the Japanese websites and settled on Taiyo, reportedly the #2 best tonkatsu restaurant in the whole of Tokyo. I would have gone to the #1 but it was just a very long way from central Tokyo, while #2 was still out of range but at least do-able with a car.
So off we went to Musashi-Koyama, which is so much in the burbs that I can't recall ever going there except for once in 20 years. It's not that far from central Tokyo, especially with good roads and an efficient transportation system, but when you get used to staying within the same few square kilometers in Tokyo, everything else is far.
BACK TO THE GOOD OLD DAYS
But how glad I was to visit this place, which reminded me of how Tokyo was about 25 years ago, and how some parts of Osaka and Nagoya still are. For one thing, it's full of old-fashioned neighborhoods with tiny wooden houses and life revolves around a bustling covered commercial area that's full of people, interesting stores and bargains. Wow, after Ginza and Omotesando, everything in Musashi Koyama looked cheap and I went on a shopping spree afterwards.
But first to lunch at this tonkatsu place. I was warned it would be small and nondescript, but even with that warning, we couldn't find it on a tiny street that also counted a recycle shop, a tiny cake shop run by one chef who made cakes to order, and a small Korean restaurant as tenants. We never noticed a sign, but eventually we noticed about ten people lining up in the cold outside a small shop with a wooden door and no windows so you couldn't see in.
"This must be it," we told ourselves. And after parking the car, we took our places at the end of the line and resigned ourselves to a wait. What we weren't prepared for was an incredibly long wait. I think it was close to an hour in the cold.
HOW LONG CAN FOREVER BE?
The husband and wife duo
When we finally got it, we realized why it had taken forever. It's a small restaurant with about ten chairs lined up along a counter, run by a husband and wife team. The wife takes the orders, serves, and washes the dishes, while the husband makes the tonkatsu. And there's no such thing as management efficiency here; each set of orders is prepared and cooked in order of your arrival.
And what a painstaking process that was! After waiting for about an hour outside, it took a good 25 minutes or so to actually get any food on our end of the counter. And in that span of time, I can tell you that I was quite prepared to befriend the guy sitting next to me for a slice of tonkatsu.
The chef hard at work
"This had better be good," I said. "I don't think I've ever waited for a meal in this way ever." And what I meant was that we'd stood outside in the freezing cold and then sat for 25 minutes inside hungry and looking at everyone else having their tonkatsu within elbow's length. That was really torture, at 130 PM in the afternoon.
GREAT VALUE, DELICIOUS MEAL
And the verdict? It was an incredibly good tonkatsu considering the price and the fact that we're talking about a regular slice of pork chop here and not some fancy prize-winning pig from Kagoshima. After that very long wait, we had to order the best and most expensive item on the menu, and it cost all of JYEN 1500. For that price, it was a wonderful piece of tonkatsu.
Taiyo's tonjiru soup
How does it compare to Tokyo's fancy tonkatsu restaurants like Maisen Honten and Katsukura, which are as much about branding as about tender pig? Maizen Honten is where all of Tokyo's celebrities go, by the way; and in the past two decades, I've taken most of my relatives, lots of friends, and both Inquirer columnist Amado Doronila and Kris Aquino - the latter two not at the same time, in case you were wondering; but I did take Kris here a long time ago when she visited Tokyo for her TV show.
Well, this little restaurant compared very favorably in the regular department. If you're just ordering a tonkatsu teishoku from Maisen, then this little place in the middle of nowhere will outrun that. But if we're talking about that JYEN 3000++ black pig with the special grated apple sauce, well, I'm not so sure. I'd have to say both are good in their own way.
Perhaps the charm of our little Musashi Koyama find is that it's not at all a commercial place. You can very much feel it's a labor of love kind of establishment, and that personal touch is so apparent. And if you want a whiff of the real Japan, this is the kind of place you should be going to. There are millions of places like these all over the country, and most of them are out of the English-language guidebook radar.
MOCHIBUTA TONKATSU TAIYO
Tel (81)(3) 3786-1464
* * *
JOINING HANDS FOR JAPAN
To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.
DON'T MISS THIS AMAZING CULTURAL EVENT
ON SALE EVERYWHERE NOW
TRAVELIFE MAGAZINE on Facebook