There’s nothing gourmet about tonkatsu. Those deep-fried cutlets with their crisp, appetizing exteriors concealing juicy chunks of rich, fatty pork are, for many, the ultimate expression of Japanese comfort food. But, as with other types of downhome cooking, the best purveyors often become the object of popular devotion. That is certainly the case at Narikura.
From the very start, this modest basement diner has stood out from the pack. This is thanks to owner-chef Seizo Mitani’s rigorous focus on using premium quality pork, frying each katsu “low and slow,” and serving it without any attempt at high-end affectations. Needless to say, the word spread fast, first among local aficionados and then further afield. Now, six years on, Narikura boasts one of the longest lines of any restaurant in the city and a permanent place on the map for foodie tourists visiting from other parts of Asia.
Located on a backstreet on the quieter side of Takadanobaba Station, you will spot the unprepossessing entrance not from its discreet sign but the queue stretching around the corner and halfway down the block. If you time your arrival right — say, on a cold, rainy winter evening — it may take less than 20 minutes to inch your way down the narrow flight of stairs to the restaurant door. At other times, though, be prepared to wait two or three times longer.
At least you will have plenty to occupy yourself with on the way down: working out what you want to order. The menu, all in Japanese and slipped inside a well-thumbed plastic file, offers several choices of pork, with cuts priced according to size and rarity. Agu pork from Okinawa is known for its “healthy” fat that melts at relatively low cooking temperatures. Kagoshima Kurobuta is rich, fattier and full-flavored.
Perhaps the best place to start at Narikura is with the excellent Kirifurikogen-buta from upland Tochigi Prefecture. The meat is lighter and milder but very satisfying. If you like lots of fat, ask for rosu; if you prefer lean, then go for hire. But the rarest, softest cut is the one that Mitani calls “Chatonbriand” — a pun based on the famous Chateaubriand beefsteak, where “ton,” the Japanese word for pig, has been slotted in.
Only once you’re finally inside and seated, Mitani and his team will start cooking your order. Order a beer while you wait or just sit back and watch his crew in action in the cramped kitchen, moving as precisely as a synchronized swimming team . Each tray is readied, a classic teishoku (traditional set meal) with mounds of fine-sliced raw cabbage, a serving of potato salad, a saucer of pickles and a steaming bowl of ton-jiru (miso soup with plenty of pork).
Finally, your cutlet is ready and the entire set meal is served. The outer casing is a perfect golden-brown and, remarkably, isn’t oily despite having been cooking in fat for so long. The meat inside has just the lightest tinge of rare pinkness. Add a few drops — that’s all you really need — of dark, tart-sweet tonkatsu sauce and enjoy the complementing textures and flavors: fatty, meaty, crispy, crunchy, sweet and savory.
Is it worth the wait? Only you can answer that. Certainly not, if you’re tight on time. But as a yardstick to measure Tokyo’s other top tonkatsu restaurants, a visit to Narikura is essential.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.