In my pre-Tokyo days there’s one dish I like that has always been disappointing: Tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep fried pork cutlet. I didn’t know yet how heavenly an authentic one was going to be, but I always knew it shouldn’t be a thin or dry cut that tires you jaw, and a batter so hard it hurts the roof of your mouth. It just can’t be. Back home in Seattle WA, the best tonkatsu I’ve had is sandwiched between coleslaw, sauces and a bun at Katsu Burger. It was pretty thick and juicy but it’s not the true tonkatsu experience where the pork is eaten on its own, served with a side of rice and a salad of finely shredded cabbage.
We almost ran out of meals in Tokyo and I’m forever grateful to husband for insisting on trying a true tonkatsu. On our last night, we were very tired, but we realized there’s small restaurant called Tontake that serves tonkatsu just across the street from the hotel. Small square wooden tables, coat hangers along one of the walls for guests. There’s one chef, a lady who greets us, who saw us struggle with the Japanese menu and brings out an English one, and an older lady in the kitchen. We wonder if they are a mother-and-son-and-wife trio. Just behind where I sat there’s a tiny sink (for guests I assume), and a corner that’s like a shrine dedicated to a pig.
The tonkatsu was everything I always believed a tonkatsu should be: tender meat, crispy coat. It is also beyond anything I expected it to be. The coating is so light it requires little crunching, then the fatty juice of the cutlet swirls in your mouth, and the meat falls apart with little chewing. This tonkatsu literally melts in your mouth. I was as eager to eat it all by myself as I was to share it with my husband. It was so unbelievably tasty I kept shaking my head. Husband glared at me, “If it’s so good, stop shaking your head!” So I quickly switched back to nodding the whole time I ate.
As appetizers we ordered a skewer of fried chicken skin and pork liver. To me, cooking pork liver is challenging. My mom always cooks it until it’s hard and chewy. Then I learned that it meant she overcooked it. The way we have pork liver in Hong Kong is most often sliced and boiled in a broth, or blanched and then finished in a stir fry. Cubed, breaded and fried is completely new to us. Just like the cutlet, it was the most moist and tender pork liver we’ve ever had.
Husband asked if I wanted to go back for lunch before our flight the next day. I took a deep breath, still basking in the joy of this meal that is one of the best I’ve had in my life, and I said no. I wanted to leave the experience as it is for a while. I don’t want it anything less enchanting, which a repetition might be, to write over it. I will have a tonkatsu again some day, where I’ll be disappointed and I’ll long for this one at Tontake. I might come back one day and be disappointed because they’ve set the bar very high. For now, I just don’t want the magic to wear off just yet.
I miss it already, Tonkatsu from Tontake, Shinjuku. Just about across the street from the Sunroute Plaza Hotel, Shinjuku.
These skewers of pork liver and chicken skin are small but they made me so happy. (You can absolutely order more)
If any of you are from Seattle or know of a good tonkatsu there, please let me know! 🙂