Tasty tonkatsu tactics


POSTED: Sunday, March 29, 2009

In little more than a decade, and largely due to the Internet's influence, we've been transformed from a society of generalists to one of special interests.





        255 Beach Walk / 926-8082

Food: ;*;*;*; 1/2


Service: ;*;*;*; 1/2


Ambience: ;*;*;*; 1/2


Value: ;*;*;*


Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily


Cost: About $50 to $60 for two without drinks


Also: Takeout portions available at Shirokiya Ala Moana food court from about $5 to $15




The effect is of walking around with blinders on and possibly missing something important along the way. Superstar chefs have responded with branding across multiple platforms, leveraging their high-end reputations into fast-food and prepared-food enterprises. These days, no outlet can be discounted because a business's potential fans might not have the means or readiness for the message.

The latest to reach beyond its established market is Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, specializing in pork cutlet, which has expanded beyond its Beach Walk site, opened about two years ago, into a small corner of Shirokiya Ala Moana's bustling second-floor food market.

It's a way to reach consumers feeling the pinch of the economic slowdown, and a great introduction for casual diners, who, after sampling about six ounces of Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin's pork tenderloin for $5 at Shirokiya, might be more willing to explore further or splurge later on a more relaxing sit-down meal at the Waikiki restaurant.

At Shirokya the pork is quite good even after sitting in the takeout containers, and if that doesn't appeal, you can always request that they cook up a fresh, hot batch.

THAT TACTIC worked on me because I've never been a big tonkatsu fan due to what is usually presented locally. A lot of the time, it is mostly bread crumbs with a thin sliver of pork between the layers. Pass.

The Ginza Bairin pork tenderloin at Shirokiya convinced me it could be otherwise. These were little bigger than pork nuggets, but they were tender, juicy and sweet and I had to see what more the restaurant had to offer.

Parking is easy and cheap ($1 with validation) in the Kalakaua Business Center (former Mitsukoshi building) next door.

A takeout menu shares part of the Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin story. The restaurant was started in 1927, influenced by the European introduction of beef cutlets in the 19th century. Due to a combination of land availability for farming, visual aesthetics and, ultimately, flavor, pork cutlets became the meat of choice. At Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, preparation of the pork was elevated to an art.

The pork is dredged in egg and fresh panko, cooked through at a low temperature of about 180 degrees to seal in moisture and maintain its tenderness, then at a little more than 200 degrees to bring the panko to its crispest.

It's cooked in cottonseed oil, a trans-fat-free vegetable oil called liquid gold because it's rich in vitamin K needed for bone health and is nearly greaseless.

When it comes to choosing dishes, you have the option of pork loin, pork tenderloin or the ultimate Kurobuta (known as Berkshire elsewhere), the equivalent of Wagyu beef in the pork world, prized for its fine marbling.

There is only a limited quantity daily of 100 percent Kurobuta pork loin from Iowa ($36 complete meal, $32 a la carte), served as an inch-thick cutlet that allows you to see the pork as well as taste it. You can dress it up with condiments at the table, including Japanese mustard, sesame seeds, shichimi pepper and the restaurant's signature tonkatsu sauce, a reduction of apples, onion, tomato, vinegar, spices and other ingredients. For this pork a little goes a long way.

Elsewhere on the menu is 35 to 40 percent Kurobuta imported from Canada. You might try it in the thick-cut pork loin katsu or pork tenderloin katsu ($23 complete, $19 a la carte). Many opt for the wafu oroshi pork loin ($21, $17) served with grated daikon and homemade ponzu sauce. A la carte servings are presented with a heap of slivered cabbage that can be topped with more tonkatsu sauce, or request sesame dressing.

Comfort cuisine takes the form of Bairin's signature pork tenderloin katsu-don ($18), a dish that took first place in a Japanese food competition last year. The pork tenderloin is served over rice, covered in a savory broth of vegetables, mirin, sake and soy that takes three hours to prepare, and topped with an egg.

For variety there is sweet, crunchy jumbo black tiger shrimp katsu ($21, $17), which uses the same panko coating. And there is karaage chicken ($14, $10), shaped like Okinawan doughnuts, comprising organic chicken. Appetizers change daily, but these might include ahi poke with diced avocado, and scallop sashimi drizzled with oil and sprinkled with a little bit of goma and peppers.

In spite of the heavy connotation of a deep-fried meal, there is something to be said for the combination of lean pork, light oil and hot tea, such that you'll feel fine about adding dessert. Finish with a refreshing dish of zenzai with green tea or azuki ice cream ($5.50). The portion is small, so you might want to order your own instead of sharing.


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.