Saturday, August 10, 2013

A delicious and very local tonkatsu restaurant in Japan -- the 2nd best tonkatsu in Tokyo



One 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.

Tokyo, after all, is a city with some of the world's best restaurants. 

It also has some of the world's most delicious unknown holes in the wall, and certainly enough famous restaurants with Michelin stars to populate the sky.

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A TRAVELIFE OF OPTIONS

I toyed with the idea of going to Crescent.

This is an established French restaurant in Tokyo that's kind of out of the radar of foreign foodies for some reason.

But Japanese foodies consider Crescent 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 are only three things I concentrate on food-wise: beef, sushi and sashimi and kaiseki meals.

I've never had truly amazing versions of these outside Japan.

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.

I don't care how people rave over certain tonkatsu restaurants in other countries -- the best of tonkatsu overseas simply can't compare to the best of Japan.


FACTORS FOR A GOOD TONKATSU



It's a matter of the quality of the pork and the way it's cooked.

Then there's the quality of the cooking oil, and even the quality of the tonkatsu sauce. The really good places make their own sauce and don't just serve something out of the bottle.

Finally there are the small details often overlooked by restaurants abroad, which are de rigeur in really good Japanese tonkatsu restaurants -- like whether the sesame seeds are freshly ground or not, and how the cabbage is cut.



TRADITION ALSO MATTERS

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 in a sophisticated city like New York, perhaps, because of the need to cater to foreign customers who aren'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.

A NEW PLACE, FOR ONCE

Anyway, it was tonkatsu I wanted that day, 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 usually revolves around a fixed set of restaurants and hotels in places I often visit.




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 and a painless dining process even if you don't speak Japanese.

These famous tonkatsu restaurants also 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 Maizen

Maizen Honten is in Omotesando and Katsukura is in Shinjuku, and these are two of my top recommendations for easy, accessible and delicious tonkatsu.

And if I had to pick one of these, I would pick Katsukura over Maizen Honten.

Now locals have more options because the language and accessibility barriers are down. They don't need to stick to HibiyaOmotesando or Shinjuku for their meal. 

GOING LOCAL,
AND SETTLING FOR #2

But that day 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 once in 20 years.

It's not that far from central Tokyo, especially with good roads and an efficient transportation system. However, when you get used to staying within the same few square kilometers in Tokyo, everything else suddenly becomes far.

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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.



SO SMALL WE ALMOST DIDN'T FIND IT

I was warned it would be small and nondescript.

However, 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 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.

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. Meanwhile the husband makes the tonkatsu.

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PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE...

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 his tonkatsu.

I was that desperately hungry.

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 for an hour 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 1500 yen.

For that price, it was a wonderful piece of tonkatsu.

Taiyo's tonjiru soup

MEASURING UP TO MAIZEN

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 Armando Doronila and Kris Aquino - the latter two not at the same time, in case you were wondering.

However, I did take Kris here a long time ago when she visited Tokyo for her TV show.

APPLES TO APPLES...



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 3000 yen++ 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 the 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 hundreds of typically old-fashioned neighborhoods 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
Maison Izumi
Koyama 3-22-7
Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo



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