Every culture has the good ole’ standby, fail-safe dish that you know you’ll enjoy. In London, I always have fish and chips; In Paris, I always start my day with a croissant and pain raisin; In Tokyo, I have to have my tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets.
A few years back, a friend of mine passed along some sage advice before I traveled to Japan for the first time: If you’re having trouble finding restaurants, look up! What she meant was that while most restaurants in Canada are always at ground level, in Japan many restaurants are located on floors well above the city streets.
It was early evening in Asakusa, and after spending a couple of hours taking photographs of the popular district, my stomach was grumbling, so I decided to heed my friend’s advice and I looked up. This time I saw something rather unusual, maybe not by Tokyo’s standards but unusual nonetheless. I initially thought it was a woman staring down the boulevard from her second story balcony. The woman was standing perfectly still, so I decided to walk a little closer and, upon further inspection, she turned out to be a mannequin.
Despite it all, crossing the street and looking up to the second floor brought me in front of Katsuki-tei restaurant and the sight of plastic food displayed in glass cases. I looked down to see the inviting plate of tonkatsu and happily made my way inside.
The interior was no frills and the sound of smooth jazz playing in the background was something typically heard whilst riding a department store elevator. The place was packed and — based on the customer’s interactions with the wait staff — seemed to be an establishment filled with local residents.
I ordered my meal — along with a mug of draft beer — and my waitress soon returned with a small plastic bowl filled with iceberg lettuce leaves and something that tasted like ranch dressing. An auspicious beginning to the meal but any reservations were quickly abated when the main course arrived: deep-fried pork, steamed rice, miso soup, pickled radish and shredded cabbage. The cost of the meal came to ¥1,500 (English menus are available).
The usual sauces were on hand and I took full advantage of the sweet and tangy Worcestershire-like tonkatsu sōsu (sauce) as well as the karashi (spicy mustard). An elderly couple sitting in the booth across from me very kindly shared their dispenser of soy sauce and also taught me something about Katsuki-tei. The elderly lady midway through the meal passed her soup bowl to the waitress and was promptly given a second serving. It had been a long day of walking in and around Asakusa; I felt I had worked up enough of an appetite for second bowl of miso soup myself. I grabbed the attention of my waitress and handed her my bowl and I, too, received another helping.
Forget about the decor, forget about the ambience and forget the pretense. Tonkatsu is a no-nonsense, tasty meal that I will return to again and again. If you’re walking around Asakusa and you feel like someone — or something — is watching you, it could be that plastic lady on the second floor. It’s a little creepy, but at least it will lead you to a good meal.