I was recently in Tokyo on business & given that my friend & her husband have recently moved to this electric city, they offered to take me to their favourite local restaurant for dinner. The restaurant is called Tonki & it is a genuine institution in Tokyo, having been trading in the same spot for 73 years & handed down from generation to generation over the decades.
If you’re in Tokyo & looking for a restaurant that can offer up a broad selection of the finest Japanese food, then I’m afraid this isn’t for you. If however you want to eat wonderful Tonkatsu without the choice of anything else, then put this top of your list. As a naïve Westerner I didn’t know what Tonkatsu was, so for any readers like me, I can now tell you that Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet & famous across Japan. There are two main types, fillet and loin, depending on fat content & it is traditionally served with shredded cabbage.
From the outside, Tonki (much like the thousands of Tokyo restaurants) is non-descript & is identified by a couple of well worn wooden doors & a short blue curtain that you duck under. I have been reliably informed that the other way of spotting it in the busy Meguro area is to look for the long queue of hungry diners lining up outside.
On entering, the first thing that strikes you is just how big the place is. There is a huge open kitchen with simple counter-seating shaped in a big U-shape so the chefs are fully on show. Given there is always a wait before you are seated, the maitre’d takes your order as you enter, & miraculously is able to track you as you sit amongst the other waiting diners, seating people in order & having your food ready in a heartbeat once you’re seated.
There can’t be many restaurants where waiting is as much fun as it is in Tonki. Within a few minutes you get the full picture of just how slick & well-run the kitchen is. Admittedly this is made easier given that there is no menu, or choice. The only decision you have to make (& pass onto the miracle-working maitre’d) is whether you want the fatty or lean pork cutlet. This simplicity of menu goes some way to explain the workings of the kitchen. Chef #1 dips pork in egg, Chef #2 dips in bread crumbs, Chef #3 masterfully controls it in the cauldrons of hot fat with giant chopsticks, Chef #4 takes it out & Chef #5 (the boss) chops it into perfect slices. In the background Chef #6 is shredding cabbages & getting the plates ready. It’s an absolute joy to watch & given we are in Japan, it is typically efficient. I have heard stories that all the chefs are family members, & whilst I don’t know how true that is, I can tell you that ‘the boss’ who does the slicing is well into his eighties & given he takes ripping hot pork cutlets straight from the fryer into his bare hands, must have fingers of steel, & is the talk of the restaurant.
We were seated after about 20 minutes & once at our counter we had a cold Japanese Asahi beer & within a few seconds our hot fried pork, sliced cabbage & beautiful tomatoes were served up. It comes with a spicy pepper shaker for those who like heat, a big bowl of rice, a pot of plum sauce & a lovely surprise of hot pork miso soup. Whilst the cutlet is delicious, if I were being highly critical it was ever so slightly over cooked, but the flipside of that is a wonderful crispy breadcrumb outer which is clearly getting the benefit of the flavour-packed fat cauldrons that have been frying pork for 73 years. I could have eaten that crispy shell for hours. All of the accompaniments are perfect compliments but the pork certainly takes pride of place.
The whole experience is over quickly but watching the silent chefs all executing their stations in perfect head-to-toe white aprons & hats continues to be great fun, & the food itself is delicious.
I would strongly recommend anyone that finds themselves in this wonderful city popping along & enjoying Tonki’s famous Tonkatsu.
Tonki, 153-0064 Tokyo, Meguro