Sushi, check. Ramen, check. Izakaya snacks, check. I’m a fan of some of the styles of Japanese food that are much promoted and loved right now. What I have yet to get into is soba, and I should stop dragging my heels on that as I understand New York to be home to some really great soba places. I’ve also never had Japanese curry, which is what I would put more in the realm of “cooked” Japanese food, for lack of a much better term. Whenever I think of this side of Japanese cuisine, I always think of the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie has a real date with her f&ck buddy. They go to a Japanese restaurant that Carrie has suggested because of the amazing yellowtail (hamachi? mackerel?) sashimi they serve. He makes some bro comment about not eating raw fish and promptly orders chicken teriyaki. She looks at him like he’s a Neanderthal.
I feel that sentiment still kind of exists, which is unfortunate because I’ve recently learned the joys of pork katsu (tonkatsu), which is breaded and fried pork loin. I’ve always noticed it on bento combos, but I never have considered it out of fear of disappointing Carrie. Raw must prevail! Not always. Fresh fish treated appropriately is great, but so is crispy, panko-encased tender pork, dipped in a sweet sauce, and served with rice.
I first tried tonkatsu at Ootoya, as it is right around the corner from my Spanish class. It’s a chain from Japan that serves mostly “comfort” food, but there is sushi on the menu. A friend of mine living in Japan explained that, in Japan, Ootoya is considered to be like Denny’s. There are two here, and the décor, service, and patrons do not suggest Denny’s at all. Much more first date than last call. I came specifically to try the tonkatsu as a Japanese guy I had messaged with (full confession) on Tinder told me it was his favourite place for it (I used him for this info then promptly stopped replying…). The tonkatsu comes with rice, shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce. For a few dollars more, you can upgrade to a set that includes miso soup and chawanmushi (egg custard). A hot mustard is also provided for dipping, and I also paid extra for tororo to put on my rice. Tororo is grated mountain yam. It’s the whitish sludge at the bottom of the picture. I had never heard of it before so just went with it. My server instructed me to put soy sauce in the tororo and then pour the mix on my rice (as it’s a faux pas to put soy directly on your rice). It didn’t wow me.
But the tonkatsu was delicious. The breading was crisp and didn’t fall off the pork between bites. I loved doing a double dip in the tonkatsu sauce and the mustard for a mix of sweet and hot. The chawanmushi (top right covered dish) was smooth, creamy, and savoury. After the tonkatsu, the miso soup was my favourite dish. I’d never had miso soup with pork and vegetables in it before. I now only want my miso soup to have pork and vegetables in it. A complaint is that I don’t like this many-dishes-at-once style of eating. I get too excited and stimulated by all the choice and end up eating everything too fast. I need courses.
Like the two I got during my visit to Katsuhama: miso soup and then my main. Now, Katsuhama, is clearly named for… katsu. The said Japanese boy told me that Katsuhama (there are also two locations) used to be good, but it is not anymore. In any case, my cobbler is right next to the location on 55 st, and it made an easy lunch stop when I had to drop some boots off. I have no interest in truly comparing the two places, so I went with what I suspected would be a deeply comforting dish: katsudon.
In this case, the tonkatsu receives a creamy layer of egg and is served with stewed onions over rice. The ample serving of white rice obviously made me happy, but the crispy pork covered in egg, further enhanced by tonkatsu and sesame sauce I would add, is was made it a fantastic and satisfying lunch. I got my miso soup first, thankfully, and also totally dug it. I didn’t see any pork, but it did have vegetables, mostly cabbage, and was more flavourful than standard miso soups I’ve had. Yes, the pork was covered in egg, so it might be silly/obvious for me to say that Ootoya’s katsu was crisper, but my observation was based on some of the edges with no egg. Feeling spendy, I upgraded to kurobuta/Berkshire pork, and it definitely was a bit richer and fattier than the pork I had at Ootoya. I liked it. I guess one of the joys of eating at Katsuhama is that you can grind your own sesame seeds to add as a paste to the tonkatsu sauce. As I was seated at the bar, I didn’t get to do this and was presented only with a bottled sesame sauce. As I was eating a big, messy mix of pork and rice and egg, I don’t think I missed out on much.
Totally hooked on tonkatsu now. Couldn’t care less about Carrie.