Tonkatsu Tenshin – Tokyo, JP
[UPDATE: As of January 2009, closed due to poor health of the head chef]
2-8-1 Mita, Meguro-ku
Open six days a week (closed Wednesdays)
Lunch: 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: 17:30 pm to 9:30pm
My first ever visit to this establishment was in spring 2001, and I’ve gone back many times since, and have recommended it to anyone who’s asked, “where’s a good tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) place in Tokyo?”.
Clearly its one of my most favorite places to eat and its a dish I often make at home myself. Served with sides of shredded cabbage, miso soup and steamed rice, it makes for a hearty meal, and Tenshin is clearly in a class of its own in my books. I’ve only gone at lunchtime, but if you do, make sure to go as early as you can as the place is packed soon after the doors are opened.
Part of the appeal to me of Tenshin is that its not in a very convenient location. Situated between two stops on the famed Yamanote train line that circles around the centre of Tokyo, its not a place you could discover by accident just by walking around a major commuter station. So only those in the know, will be there. Throw in the fact that its operated in a very old-school manner, with even a written doctrine hanging on the wall with various rules about how patrons should behave inside. I know, it brings to mind the image of the Soup Nazi from the Seinfeld television series, and truth be told, at times it felt like that, for instance when being ordered to sit someplace when I really wanted to sit someplace else, etc. The funny thing is though that the one who barks out these orders and enforces the code is none other than the head chef’s wife, a short but stern lady who clearly has her way of doing things. Conversly, the strong and silent type, the “master” or head chef, is a tall and large man with a kind face, dressed in his cook’s whites and occassionaly glancing towards the door as new customers arrive; all the while busy tending to his cutting board, the nearby trough containing the panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and most importantly the bit vats of cooking oil. He speaks in a welcoming voice when addresing customers and serving up dishes, or giving instructions to his team in the open kitchen. I can see why he has a loyal following, its not just the great food but his personality that makes you want to come back.
Whenever I’ve gone with a group, we’ve usually been able to sit together at one of just three tables that are off to the left side of the room once you enter from the lone entrance, but up front at the U-shaped counter that surrounds the cooking grounds, is where you really want to be. For this reason, I usually try to go alone or just with one other person (as trying to get a full table as a duo, would be immediately frowned upon by the afore mentioned lady). Here you get a front row view into the inner workings behind the counter and can see the various steps of the cooking procese before its beautifully plated and served to you. Its like being in the trenches of a football match, hearing the quick discussions and subtle movements of the staff in total coordination to bring things together. All these years I’ve gone there, there has been an older gentleman, who appears to be his righthand man. Part of me feels sorry for him, as I think his role is to do a lot of the prep work in the back room that is not visible from the restaurant, as well as to bring out the hot bowls of miso soup and rice on cue when the tonkatsu is being plated. I always wondered, will he ever get a chance to bread and fry? Or will he always be a pretender and never a contender…
The menu has a variety of items, but the most popular are the set menus, featuring hirekatsu (pork fillet) and rosukatsu (pork loin). The rosukatsu has more fat than does the hirekatsu (which I believe is the more traditional cut for pork cutlets in European cuisine). Each of these goes for about 1,200 yen. There are more expensive cuts for both of these dishes that go for over 1,600 yen, as well as other variations such as minced pork tonkatsu, seafood options, etc. But I would go with the straight up pork, with their juicy meat, rich flavor and crispy coating, you just cannot go wrong. Once you’ve had it, I assure you, you will want to come back again and again…
[Apologies for the poorer quality of the photos. They were taken on previous visits with a basic point-and-shoot camera, and shot covertly so as not to upset the chef or his wife, out of fear of me being banished from the place for life, seriously!]