Smoky, succulent and tender enough to tease apart with your fingers, pulled pork is an American barbecue classic. The quintessential Southern dish, however, is still a rarity in Japan, where the slow-cooked hog has yet to make significant inroads with Japanese foodies.

That’s why it came as a pleasant surprise for Jonathan Levin, owner of Fatz’s The San Franciscan restaurant, when his pulled pork sandwich began being touted as the next “big thing.”

“Do I think it’s going to be the next tapioca? No,” says the 38-year-old, referring to the recent craze over Taiwanese bubble tea. “Making good pulled pork requires time and space, something difficult to come by in Japan. But maybe you’ll see a pulled pork sandwich being sold in convenience stores,” he says. “And that’s good for us, because we’re going to take the time and we have the space. If you want to eat authentic pulled pork, we have it.”

To prepare the dish, Levin dry rubs 2-kilogram chunks of shoulder meat, a cut known as the Boston butt, with a variety of spices and leaves them in the fridge overnight. The pork is then smoked for nine to 12 hours before being shredded with a set of meat claws.

He serves his pulled pork in sandwich form, where it’s topped with coleslaw, or served on its own, accompanied by two homemade barbecue sauces — a sweet and spicy Memphis-style sauce and a tangy, vinegar-based eastern North Carolina sauce.

Prior to opening his American restaurant two years ago in Kichijoji, a popular commercial and residential district in western Tokyo, Levin operated a small burger shop called Fatz’s in the neighboring area of Koenji. Its name was a nod to Katz’s, the famed delicatessen on New York’s Lower East Side.

“At first I wanted to do a Jewish deli like Katz’s, but the kind of sandwich I wanted to make using huge chunks of pastrami would have (cost) ¥3,000 or so, and Japan wasn’t quite ready for those kinds of sandwiches,” he says.

Instead, he tapped into the growing popularity of gourmet hamburgers, grilling up American beef patties and serving them alongside a selection of craft beer and milkshakes.

Grillmasters: Fatz's The San Franciscan head chef Shunske Asaka (left) with owner Jonathan Levin. | COURTESY OF FATZ'S
Grillmasters: Fatz’s The San Franciscan head chef Shunske Asaka (left) with owner Jonathan Levin. | COURTESY OF FATZ’S

The limited floorspace, however, meant he couldn’t offer customers his favorite style of food: barbecue. He went hunting for a larger venue, and closed Fatz’s in October 2017 after a six-year run. Together with his head chef, Shunske Asaka, Levin opened Fatz’s The San Franciscan in February 2018. Apart from its signature burgers and barbecue staples, Levin also serves tacos, burritos and a variety of dishes inspired by the Bay Area’s food trends.

Levin’s fondness for slow roasting stems from his background. His mother’s family hails from North Carolina, a revered bastion of barbecue with a long tradition of cooking pulled pork.

“In Texas they have cows, so beef is the main thing. In North Carolina, they raise pigs, so you get a whole pig and barbecue it for a day and break it apart and you get pulled pork,” he says.

Born in Tokyo, Levin is fluent in Japanese. His grandparents were Methodist missionaries for the United Church of Christ in Japan, first arriving in the country in 1952. His grandfather, David L. Swain, also worked as an editor and translator of books, including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe’s “Hiroshima Notes.”

Levin moved to California when he was 5, returning to Japan when he was 10. After graduating from the American School in Japan, he lived in San Francisco for several years studying music business. He returned to Japan when he was 24 and worked at record companies before venturing into the restaurant industry.

While his burgers were already known among foodies, the pulled pork sandwich didn’t get its big break until it was featured in Popeye, a well-known men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, in the summer of 2018. Levin was soon approached by Heinz Japan, the domestic arm of the American food giant that was interested in selling readymade pulled pork for cafes and other restaurants.

“It wanted us to spread pulled pork together in Japan. … We had study sessions with journalists and did a whole bunch of promotional activities. We then started being noticed and being in more magazines and television,” he says.

While still hard to come by, there are a number of restaurants in the capital that serve the real deal. Smokehouse in Shibuya and Hatos Bar in Nakameguro have been offering pulled pork for many years, while newcomer Toyoda’s Cheese Steak in Hatagaya makes tasty and reasonably priced Philadelphia cheesesteak and pulled pork sandwiches.

Perhaps reflecting growing national interest in the dish, between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31 last year Dakota Rustic Table, a burger shop in Kobe, organized a pulled pork “war” stamp rally that encouraged customers to visit and sample pulled pork sandwiches made by 12 restaurants across the western Kansai region.

“Would I like to expand? Sure,” Levin says about his business prospects.

“I’d like to maybe do a barbecue restaurant, maybe a Mexican restaurant and maybe a place that just does hamburgers. That’s the dream, but first we have to get this place going good. The pulled pork is just (taking off), and there’s definitely a place for pulled pork in Japan.”

Santa Fe B1-A, Kichijoji Honcho 2-25-12, Musashino, Tokyo 180-0004; 0422-692-532; www.fatzs.jp; open 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m. (L.O.); nearest station Kichijoji; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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