When my friend L moved from Osaka, where I live, to Kyoto, I weighed the consequences. On one hand, she’d be further away, less available for impromptu cocktails. I’d have one less friend in Osaka, and, as any foreigner who’s lived here for a while knows, true platonic soul mates can be hard to find. After all, we live in a land where at first every gaijin seems like a potential best friend, merely because we’re both odd-man-out on the sidewalk—towards whom schoolchildren hurl awkward renditions of “I have a pen!” and away from whom adults hurriedly stare. But real friendships require more than just being co-considered an oddity on the move. So the ones that endure in Japan take on a special significance.
That was the downside of losing L to Kyoto. But on the other hand, I rationalized, it would open up a whole new slew of gastronomic adventures. After careful consideration, I chose to look on the bright side: I decided to see the plate half full.
Accordingly, a few weeks after L’s move, we met up in Kyoto for ton katsu. These breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets are part of the yoshoku food group, as New York Times columnist Norimitsu Onishi explains, “European or American dishes [that] were imported” during the Meiji Restoration “and, in true Japanese fashion, shaped and reshaped to fit local tastes.”
The best ton katsu arrives at your table crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and surrendering a perfect balance between the richness of their flakey crust and the surprising lightness high-quality oil can yield. Luckily, L knew just where we could find such a treasure in Kyoto: at a place called Katsukura. Part of the Fukunaga restaurant group, Katsukura has twelve locations throughout Kansai. From my first bite, I understood their popularity.
Actually, I had an inkling of their success when we walked in to their sanjo shin kyo goku branch on a hot, humid Thursday evening—not the kind of night that usually provokes fried food cravings—and every seat was taken. A waitress handed us menus while we waited: Japanese for L, who is maddeningly fluent; and English for me, who, despite my Osakan husband, can barely order an espresso or glass of wine in Japanese.
For a chain, even the atmosphere at Katsukura is surprisingly pleasing. This location has a wide, gently lighted main room with sleek modern angles and granite partitions, offset by wooden beams stretching across the ceiling. The room’s center is dominated by a broad wooden community-style table, which in turn is flanked by 10 or so smaller tables where eventually L and I had the good fortune to sit and feast.
First, they brought us sesame seeds in grooved bowls along with little personal pestles for us to grind our own portion, then smother with deep, sweet-and-slightly-spicy ton katsu sauce, a concoction into which we dipped our steaming cutlets when they arrived. (Each table also holds small wooden jars of mustard, pickles, yuzu dressing, and other sauces to accompany the unlimited supply of barley-flecked rice, fresh shredded cabbage, smoky miso soup, and tea that comes with every meal.) I had a set combining a traditional cutlet with a yuba-stuffed croquet: warm, milky tofu skin with peppers, mushrooms, and white beans, all tucked into a breaded, lightly fried orb (¥1440). L stuck to straight ton katsu. (¥1000). Our other choices included sirloin, chicken, prawn, or minced beef cutlets, and various seasonal set meals.
When finished, I was too full to try another dish. At first I was crestfallen, but then L reminded me of the best part of her relocation: “I’m going to be in Kyoto for a while,” she explained gently. Without her even having to spell it out, I knew exactly what she meant: we’ll have many more chances to try all Katsukura’s cutlets.
Map @ http://www.fukunaga-tf.com/katsukura/shop/index.html
Menus in Japanese and English; Staff speaks English.