Popular tonkatsu chain Maisen serves up a Japanese classic in a family-friendly environment
By HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2018
Many foodies who visit Japan expect their meals to be filled with the likes of sushi and ramen, the most common forms of Japanese cuisine served abroad. But there’s a wide range of Japanese fare beyond these staples — and one of the most popular among locals is tonkatsu.
A simple dish comprised of a pork cutlet that’s been breaded and deep-fried, tonkatsu challenges the stereotype that suggests Japanese food is always healthy. The name itself combines “ton,” an old Japanese word for pig, and “katsuretsu,” a transliteration of the word cutlet.
Though it was adapted from Western cuisine more than 100 years ago, the dish is now a common offering at many traditional Japanese eateries — including Maisen, one of the most famous tokatsu chains in Japan.
Maisen is famous for tonkatsu made with pork so tender, the pieces can easily be cut with a chopstick. That tenderness was integral to the type of tonkatsu that founder Chiyoko Koide wanted to serve. She opened Maisen in a small basement with only a few counter seats in 1965.
According to Maisen’s website, the secret to its tender tonkatsu comes from a special preparation in which the meat is patted before the breading process. The bread crumbs used for Maisen’s breading are special, too, coming from a unique bread recipe that’s baked fresh daily.
Maisen’s main shop is located in the upscale Tokyo neighborhood of Omotesando in a converted old bathhouse — making a visit to the restaurant a unique experience. The first-floor dining area maintains the bathhouse’s original architecture, with entrance doors separated by gender and high, coffered ceilings a main feature of the interior.
When my family and I dined at Maisen on a recent Japanese holiday, we were unsurprised to find a long line outside the restaurant. Our wait was about 30 minutes. Diners should expect waits on weekdays, too — especially during peak lunch hours.
Maisen offers several variations of tonkatsu, which utilize different cuts of pork. Diners can expect to find the standard cuts found at most tonkatsu restaurants, including “hire,” a tender and lean fillet or tenderloin, and “rosu,” a juicy and fatty loin cut.
If you’re looking for a slightly premium cut of pork, Maisen offers limited servings of Amai-Yuwaku and Tokyo X-brand pork cutlets, which both range in price from 2,400 yen to 3,200 yen (or about $21.30 to $28.40), based upon the size of the cutlet ordered. Amai-Yuwaku is pork specially bred for the restaurant and is limited to just five servings per day.
Maisen’s signature pork offering, however, is kurobuta (3,100 yen). This cut comes from Berkshire-bred black pork and, according to the waitress, is tender but not as sweet as the Amai-Yuwaku.
The restaurant’s tonkatsu sets come with the standard accompaniments of shredded cabbage, rice, miso soup and Japanese pickles. Hungry diners will appreciate the unlimited refills of rice and cabbage.
I ordered the 130-gram set with Kurobuta Hire-katsu Zen (3,100 yen). While Maisen offers an option to add a sweet or spicy sauce, this dish came with a special sauce utilizing grated apple for added sweetness.
The tonkatsu was crispy, and the pork’s tenderness took me by surprise. The sweeter sauce paired quite well with the kurobuta tonkatsu, and the juicy pork was delicious and filling.
My 7-year-old daughter ordered the Kurubota Katsu-Don (1,630 yen), a classic Japanese dish featuring a bowl of rice topped with tonkatsu and egg. She loved the dish so much, that she almost finished the generous serving of rice and tonkatsu — which the waiter warned was probably too much food for her.
For my 4-year-old daughter, we opted for the Okosama Lunch (900 yen) — a children’s lunch set that includes the restaurant’s famous Hire-katsu Sando, or lean tonkatsu sandwich. (An adult-sized version is 490 yen for three pieces, and 980 yen for six pieces.)
The children’s set also comes with a variety of small side dishes, including deep-fried shrimp; a croquette with cream filling; French fries; karaage, or fried chicken; a small hamburg steak; shredded cabbage; and potato salad. My daughter couldn’t finish, but she enjoyed the sandwich the most. Still, the wide selection of items will be sure to please even the pickiest eater.
For those who do not eat pork, Maisen also serves non-tonkatsu dishes — including sashimi, soba, fried chicken and omelettes.
Unlike many restaurants in Japan, Maisen is completely family-friendly. High chairs are available for younger children, and the restrooms are equipped with diaper-changing tables.
If you do not like waiting in line, check out the small stand outside the restaurant, which offers sandwiches and lunchboxes for takeout.
LOCATION: 4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
DIRECTIONS: Maisen is accessible via the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda, Ginza and Hanzomon lines at Omotesando Station (3-minute walk) or the JR Yamanote line at Harajuku Station (10-minute walk).
HOURS: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10:45 p.m., with last order at 10 p.m.
PRICES: Tokatsu sets range in price based on the size and type of pork cutlet chosen. Most sets begin at 1,700 yen (about $15) and can go as high as 3,960 yen.