What is Tonkatsu exactly?
Let me start with a small confession: Tonkatsu is one of my favourite Japanese dishes. Over the years, I have made a point of visiting some of the more famous shops in Tokyo, so I was looking forward to visiting a new place, especially one that was as highly rated as Suzushin.
For those who aren’t familiar with this dish, Tonkatsu is prepared by first coating a pork cutlet with flour, raw eggs and bread crumbs, and then deep-frying it. Afterwards it is cut into slices and served with shredded cabbage, pickled vegetables, rice and miso soup. Surely all those veggies cancel out the deep-frying part, don’t they?
Before you start eating, you should pour on some of the provided tonkatsu sauce. I usually only put it on a couple of cutlets at a time so that the breaded crust doesn’t get soggy. Alternatively one can put the pickles on top of the rice and use its bowl to pour some sauce and then dip each cutlet individually. Regardless of the method, you shouldn’t use too much or it will overwhelm the taste of the Tonkatsu.
How was the Suzushin experience?
I arrived at Suzushin a few minutes before they stopped taking orders for lunch at 1h30, hoping to avoid the lunch hour rush. After ducking under the “Noren”, a traditional sign curtain covering the entrance, I pressed the button of the automatic door and…nothing happened. I pressed again. Nothing. Perhaps the restaurant had already closed? I was about to give up when suddenly the door was jerked open and I was welcomed in by the owner in chef’s whites. Despair turned to hope but quickly turned to despair again as a quick glance revealed a full house. Fortunately there was one seat left on the three-sided wooden counter that sits up to thirteen. I hadn’t imagined it would be so full towards the end of the lunch hour, which goes to show how popular the place is.
After being given the customary hand towel and tea, both hot in the winter, I was handed a beautifully hand-drawn menu with English translations and I chose without hesitation the Tonkatsu “Teishoku”, or set menu. Suzushin is also famous for its katsudon かつ丼 which is a bowl of rice topped with the pork cutlet, egg and onion. I was seated in the corner which made it difficult to see the workspace, where the owner’s son was cooking the cutlets and his wife was busy arranging the other items for the lunch sets. However, I had opposite me a small statue of cheerful Hotei 布袋 the god of fortune and one of the seven lucky gods to keep me company. My meal took fifteen to twenty minutes to arrive, a sign that everything is made with care.
The first thing I noticed after the lunch set tray was placed before me was, contrary to the average tonkatsu, which has a light brown colour, the breaded crust was a beautiful golden colour. I started with a small mouthful of rice to cleanse the palate and whet my appetite. I am not an expert on rice but on this occasion I thought the rice was exceptionally good. I asked about it later and I was told that it was Koshihikari rice grown in Niigata prefecture. After pouring on a little tonkatsu sauce from the white container on the counter (the smaller grey one contains soy sauce), I lifted up the first cutlet for a closer inspection – it was thinner than usual but the pork looked quite tasty and my impression was confirmed after having my first bite. I found out afterwards that it was from Ibaraki prefecture, famous for its good pork. The tonkatsu was also crispy and crunchy or “Saku Saku” as they say in Japanese. The sauce wasn’t too thick, nor was it too sweet which gave the dish a rather delicate and light feel. After finishing the entire cutlet, I felt full but not stuffed. In terms of quantity I thought it was just right, although you can order a bigger cut of tonkatsu if you have a bigger appetite. I finished the meal with the miso soup which is supposed to be enjoyed at the end. Like the tonkatsu it had a light and delicate taste. It was also chunky but in a good way, full of small pieces of pork and vegetables.
What makes Suzushin so special?
What impressed me most about Suzushin is that they embody the spirit of Japanese hospitality or “Omotenashi”. The owner asked me whether I preferred hot or cold tea and made sure to refill my cup when empty. He asked a German customer who was there at the same time where he was from and surprised him by speaking a few words of German. He seemed genuinely interested in having customers from different countries. After I payed for my meal, the owner gave me a small gift of a “senbei” or rice cracker and a “mikan” or Japanese mandarin because it was the new year. Personally I have only experienced this high level of attentiveness to customers when visiting high-end restaurants. The cost of a Tonkatsu lunchtime set meal at Suzushin? Just 1100 yen. The Kake Katsudon is 1200 yen.
Finally, Suzushin is very easy to find. It is located about a minute from Shinjuku avenue at the bottom of a sloping street called “Sharikimon”, literally cartman’s gate. It is also on the ground floor of a small standalone house between a shrine and a narrow footpath (which leads to the Tadaima Japan Ryokan) with a big sign of a smiling face affixed to the first floor. The shop has been serving Tonkatsu for nearly 60 years and it has been in its current location for the last 15. I spotted it on my first visit to Arakicho, and without knowing anything about it, just from its outside appearance, I decided I definitely wanted to eat there one day. When you go there just make sure to not give up at the door!