Famous Tonkatsu – or as Paul says, “little fried fluffy pieces of happiness”
It’s hard to articulate how excited I am to eat Japanese food in Japan. A lover of it for many years, this is my first opportunity to have super authentic versions prepared by native chefs. The thing I like about Japanese food in general is the emphasis on simple and elegant preparations that highlight the unique flavour profiles of the ingredients…rather than the more Western technique of trying to “elevate” dishes with complex sauces or literally with towers of ingredients stacked mile high. Don’t get me wrong, I love a sophisticated French meal, but I also have an appreciation for the simplicity and sheer sincerity of Japanese cooking. The Japanese will, with unwavering confidence, put a single piece of pork on a plate with a side of plain shredded cabbage and serve it to you….just like that…because it is in itself pork perfection.
Out first meal in Tokyo was after landing from the 7-hour overnight flight from Singapore. We dumped our suitcases in the hotel and set out to score lunch. We have several friends in Tokyo and so had gotten a lot of advice beforehand and had done our homework. The place we had in mind was, Maisen…a decades-old, famous spot for Tonkatsu…breaded and fried pork cutlet. It was hard to convince Paul to wait for sushi until another meal, but given that Maisen is primarily a lunch spot, Tonkatsu prevailed.
We were efficiently ushered to our table…winding from dining room to dining room, being greeted in every room by smiles and Irasshaimase, meaning “welcome” in Japanese. Maisen is in fact an old bathhouse, so it has a seemingly endless amount of levels and small dining rooms. When we entered at 12noon…all of these were full – all of them. And as we wound through the dining rooms we noticed, the majority of diners (all Japanese) had only one dish – the dish that makes Maisen famous, the Tonkatsu. Some say this is the best tonkatsu in Tokyo.
As we were seated, we were handed menus…in Japanese only, but thankfully with pictures. In Tokyo, one must get used to a lot of charades and well, just plain ole pointing. But we knew what we were here for, same as all the other diners. I ordered the Tonkatsu set ($30 USD) and Paul, who wanted to make sure we had another dish to share with you guys for variety’s sake ordered the Katsudon ($15 USD), fried pork cutlet over a rice bowl and topped with egg. And we both ordered a glass of Suntory Premium Malt Beer (which to our surprise is actually more available than the ones we know like Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin).
In short order we were brought hot towels (a norm in every Japanese restaurant from street food to fine dining) and our beers. We looked around and observed the hustle and bustle of the restaurant and mused about how many fillets of fried pork these guys must turn out every day. And then our dishes arrived. I drizzled a bit of the special Tonkatsu sauce which is a mix of ketchup, worchershire, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar over the top of the cutlet and dug in. Oh my god! Really, could it be this good? The pork was tender and juicy and the crust simultaneously light and dense, fluffy and crispy. I looked up at Paul who muttered something about “little fried fluffy pieces of happiness” and continued to eat.
The Tonkatsu was accompanied with steamed rice and shredded cabbage…in fact these items are unlimited as waitresses parade around with baskets offering refills. The clean, fresh taste and texture of the cabbage combined with the succulent pork cutlet and sweet / sour Tonkatsu sauce made a perfect bite every time. As one comes to expect with Japanese food, this traditional pairing is really an intelligent pairing with the cabbage cutting through the fattiness of the pork and the lightly sweet and tart sauce providing the acidity to give a bit of freshness to the dish overall.
We eventually traded bites…although frankly I was reluctant to do so as I was enjoying mine so much. In the end we agreed the Tonkatsu was the star…make that super star. At the end of the meal I found myself collecting all the little crispy bits left on the plate, until I realized the waitress was actually trying to clear my plate.
About 90 minutes later as were (reluctantly) ready to leave….there was a line out the door and the restaurant continued to hustle through an incredible volume of people. As we made our way back to the front of the restaurant to check out, we noticed the cashiers doing a brisk business in Tonkatsu sauce sales. It must be legendary if even the locals are stocking up on it!
Maisen – a MUST try if you are in Tokyo and for sure the best tonkatsu I have ever tasted.
Note: Unless you speak fluent Japanese you would be best served by either having your hotel print a map from the restaurant website or by having the taxi driver call the restaurant for directions.
4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Telephone: +81 (0) 3 3470 0071