Friday, March 9, 2012

Eating in Tokyo: Tonki at Meguro

Often when you told people a certain place is THE best in something or somewhere, it easily led to a heated argument with someone who happens to disagree. But I guess most who have visited Tonki - a Tokyo restaurant specialized in Tonkatsu - would come to a consensus that it is THE most epic culinary institution, serving consistently great street food since as long as they can remember.

I had one and only one thing in mind as I was rushing onto Narita Express trying to get to town before dinner time's over - that is to have a bite of Tonki's famous deep-fried pork chop (Tonkatsu). I managed to get to the restaurant at around 8pm. It's a bit off the beaten track in Meguro area though it's only a couple stations away from tourist magnets like Shinjuku or Shibuya on JR Yamanote Line. And it could be hard to find - it's located in the midst of a low-rise building block and right next to a pachinko arcade. In the past we have seen the waiting line stretched out from the door to half a block wide, but this time, at least the line's much shorter and I could avoid the rain and spend my time waiting inside.

Here they ran a very efficient waiting system - the moment you walked in, you told the guy in the kitchen what you are ordering, and you waited at the bench at the back of the restaurant until they gestured you to sit at the counter. You didn't even need to wait in a line and move along, as if the guy remembered who came in first and who ordered what. Then within minutes you sat down, your food would be served. That maximized their turnaround and minimized your waiting time. Genius.
The interior of the restaurant's like those cafeteria place we saw in Japanese TV drama - everyone's sitting in the horseshoe shape wooden counter (which can seat 30) with the open kitchen in the middle and there are long benches behind the counter where people sat and waited.

Other than an amazing waiting system, they also ran an awesome system of food preparation and delivery - almost like a production line in a factory, and the best of all, they did everything right in front of you. Here the division of labor is intense and to the details - there's an old lady shredding cabbages, another dude tending the frying pot, a young apprentice dealing with rice, then someone at the back for the soup station...  and above all that, a man pacing himself around different stations, directing orders and managing the waiting queue. With such focus in even the most menial process, it's not hard to imagine why they can be so consistently good in every bit of the meal.
My food came after a 20 minute wait from the time I walked through its door. Here the menu's very simple - basically 3 main course items - hire-katsu (the leaner tenderloin), roshu-katsu (the fattier chop) or kushi-katsu (pork in skewers), plus items like rice and soup and drinks. The main course items can be ordered a la carte but most opted for the set which came with unlimited cabbage and rice and soup - similar to what we have in Hong Kong.
Here is my Hire-katsu set. I know it just looked like any other katsudon as you would find anywhere, but to me, this is one of the best I have tasted. Despite hire being the leaner part, the pork was moist, tender and with intense meat flavor. I also like the crispy outside, which was separated from the meat and it's more firm and crunchy compared to others I have tasted elsewhere - probably the result of using finer panko crumbs and higher frying temperature. Think Cantonese roast pork with the cracklings except it's made of batter instead of skin and wrapped all around. There's no fancy dressings for the cabbage salad - only the regular katsu sauce, but the crisp, fresh cabbage's nonetheless good.

I may not have the best of weather during this short stay in Tokyo, but I certainly got a good start in terms of food. Of all casual places I have tried in Tokyo, Tonki's always the one that made a lasting impression and stood out as a class of its own for the food they serve and the whole experience dining in this casual restaurant full of hustle and bustle. And all these for only 1800 yen - what a deal.

when? March 4 2012
where? Tonkatsu Tonki (とんかつ とんき), 1-2 Shimo-Meguro 1-chome, Meguro-ku, Tokyo (東京都目黒区下目黒1-1-2)
menu highlights? Hire Tonkatsu, Rohsu Tonkatsu


Edena said...

Looks like an awesome place to eat at!! Must try!

gary s said...

Yes Edena, I love this place since my first visit in 2000. Love these kind of restaurant so focused in one thing and did it to perfection.