Eat It is a new regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
So I'm in this cab the other night, on the way to dinner. This guy in the front seat who I've met once before turns to me and says, "Hey man, I tried that tonkatsu place you told me about. It's really good. But there's something freaky going on there. I saw, like, an older business guy and a younger woman come out of the back room. I was the only person in there for, like, half an hour, and I didn't see them go in. I think it was, you know..." And then he went into this fevered, irrational diatribe on how everyone and everything in China is for sale, including the temporary backroom use of waitresses' hands. Whatever, man. I don't know what you saw, but the tonkatsu place on Jiaozhou Lu isn't just a creative front for some working girls fed up with barbershop-like environments. The tonkatsu is too good. Plus your theory is retarded.
After I stopped being offended that this guy just insulted my favorite tonkatsu place, I wondered. There is some slightly weird stuff going on in there. For one, they have Xinjiang Black Beer. What Japanese restaurant serves that? The statuettes of happy pigs -- in overalls, in winter gear -- at a restaurant that specializes in frying up their cutlets always struck me as funny and endearing, not morbid. But I could see how well-adjusted people might be taken aback. And then there's the complicating fact that the other tonkatsu place
, the one whose name I know (Haneda) and whose pork cutlet is just as good, is definitely part-brothel. That one has a lovely, light-wood dining room hidden away in the fifth-floor of a Xujiahui office building with a difficult-to-locate elevator. There's an attached Japanese KTV with a ridiculous floor made of Chivas bottles under glass and ladies in miniskirts. They have a real nice tonkatsu lunch set for 42rmb.
The Jiaozhou Lu shop is too small for all that, though. There are only six tables. Maybe there's a tiny backroom whose profits keep this place afloat, but I doubt it. Why would an illicit business care so much about the details? It's those details that elevate their tonkatsu from being merely an oversized pork nugget to something much more glorious. The rice is quality, and perfectly cooked. Each grain is distinct. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by looking at their rice. The pork itself is never overcooked. If anything, it's a bit undercooked, which is to say, perfect. Nothing ruins pork more than that last minute of cooking, when it goes from a juicy blush color to white and dry. And those are the two things that make a difference in tonkatsu. The rest is fairly standard -- a smear of spicy yellow Japanese mustard, Japanese pickles, a mound of finely shredded white cabbage, and a teapot of fruity BBQ-like sauce called Bulldog to drown the cabbage in. Watch the Japanese businessmen who swarm this place at lunch. They'll show you how it's done.
The mechanics of it work like this. There's a menu with English and some things that aren't pork cutlets. I don't know if they're good. I've never eaten there with anyone who ordered something besides the pork, and my order is set in stone. Ain't broke and all that. The pork cutlet comes in two varieties, fatty and lean. The fatty isn't all that fatty and the lean isn't all that lean. What changes more significantly is the ratio of meat to crust. If you like more fried crunch, get the lean. If you want to taste the pork, get the fatty. They're the same price, 65rmb for a set that includes the pickles, soup, and cabbage, but no drink. Lunch is from 11.30 to 2pm and dinner is 5-10pm (except on the weekend, when they close at 9.30pm), but when the lunch rush is over, they shut things down. You can't show up at 1.50pm expecting to eat.
. It's directly across Jiaozhou Lu from the URBN Hotel
, in the covered storefront that looks like it's closed. Number 176.
Update: Haneda, the other tonkatsu place, has bitten the dust. R.I.P.