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[Eat It]: Tonkatsu Quest In Shanghai's Finest Mall Food Court

A journey to the West[side] in search of the city's best Japanese fried pork cutlet, at the next-level Arch Walk mall.
2015-12-16 16:25:54
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

Eat It is a regular SmartShanghai feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

If you asked me where to find the best tonkatsu in Shanghai 10 years ago, I would have told you to take a gamble on any of the Japanese restaurants in Gubei where the quality varied day to day depending on the mood of the chef and other factors I don’t fully understand. If you asked me five years ago, I would have steered you towards the now shuttered Tonkatsu Hamachan (R.I.P) in Jing'an, and in 2013, I would have confidently recommended Katsukura. That last one is still excellent, but newcomer Katsumasa has it beat as we creep into 2016.

The Treasures Of The Arch Walk Mall

Katsumasa is a new entry on the Shanghai tonkatsu scene, tucked into the B2 level of the awesome, new-ish Arch Walk mall. The pork cutlet spot shares its address with some well-known names like Bellagio, New York Style Steak and Burger, and Momo Paradise, and several lesser-known gems and deep cuts. If you haven't been to this mall, you should check it out.

Arch Walk also has the best food court in Shanghai. Its diverse and dank offerings range from specialty corn dogs to Hong Kong street snacks to chicken kebabs. There is an entire wing dedicated to casual Japanese food. Tables are everywhere, so you can immediately dig into what you just bought, giving the court a night market kinda vibe when it's full on the weekends.

This shopping center opened early last year as part of a wave of new malls in that part of Changning District. The Place (revamped Hongqiao Parksons) on Zunyi Lu is a quick walk away; next to that is the the L'Avenue mall (the luxury boot); and around the corner is the Soho plaza that's still under construction. Further west down Tianshan Lu is the almost-complete giant extension of the original Bingo plaza (rumored to have an IMAX theater), and some of the older malls on that street are shuttered and look poised for renovations. By my count, there will be 12 malls within that square kilometer by the time construction ends. Hello, Xujiahui-esque traffic. To deal with this impending gridlock, there are plans in place to link the basement levels of most these malls along with the subway system, essentially creating another subterranean network of commercial real estate.

Aside from Katsumasa's tonkatsu, architecture, design, and options make Arch Walk stand out amongst all these developments. The mall has an open layout with a garden rooftop, and for the most part, it works.

Sadly, there is no Orange Julius, but there are lots of water features.

But enough about this mall -- we're here to talk tonkatsu.

Arch Walk Mall Meets The English Berkshire Pig

A minor earthquake hit Tokyo when I first dined at Katsukura on the top level of the Takashimaya in Shinjuku, about six years ago. My wife freaked out, the waitresses did their best to not panic, and the pregnant woman sitting next to us joined hands with her husband and prayed in silence as the light fixture above their heads swung from side to side. I however, never stopped eating. I was experiencing tonkatsu nirvana. The deep fried pork loin was impossibly soft and juicy, the panko crust was crisp and not greasy in the least, and it carried a slight gamey pig aroma akin to prosciutto. A game changer. The cut was advertised to be from a special black haired pig, the Kurobuta (which I would later learn is the same as the prized English Berkshire Pig).

Berkshire Pigs. Image via the Hough Family Farm. Also, Napoleon from Animal Farm was a Berkshire Boar.

I was hooked: I had no idea tonkatsu could taste this good, despite a lifelong relationship with it.

Katsukura (pictured above) has lost the throne to Katsumasa

When Katsukura opened up their satellite branch in the Gubei Takashimaya years later, the execution was superb, and the loin and filet cuts they used were without a doubt superior to other tonkatsu joints in town. Noticeably absent from the menu, however, was our black haired friend -- the Kurobuta.

Still, Katsukura remained my reliable go-to for my monthly tonkatsu fix until earlier this year. That's when Katsumasa found its way into my heart, and I finally found the Kurobuta in Shanghai...

A queue often forms at Katsumasa during peak hours, so I like to go later at night. Besides, late here is like 8pm. You want the either 160g Kurobuta pork fillet set (88rmb) or the Kurobuta loin sets (88-98rmb). I prefer the leaner fillet over the loin cuts. You might be temped to get the Kurobuta TORO loin set (108rmb) but I would strongly advise against that. It's like eating a piece of deep fried fat. Kurobuta (Berkshire) pigs are renowned for their rich flavor and darker colored meat with intense marbling, and I believe there is a golden fat-to-lean meat ratio that delivers the ideal tonkatsu experience. The TORO loin cut, probably taken from near the shoulder, looks to be over 40% fat and is far better suited for slow cooking methods such as braising or stewing.

After choosing your cut of swine, you get the choice of white rice or barley rice. Get the barley rice. It’s served with a small vat of grated mountain yams, which has a gooey consistency that might be off-putting at first. But you mix it well with the politely shaped grains of barley rice (a world apart from the crack-whore grains of rice they serve at Chongqing chicken joints), and now your carb base has the added benefit of fiber.

As you wait for the food to arrive, you get some kimchi, pickled radish, and kuromame (black soy beans). Kimchi is a probiotic, and the kuromame contains high levels of antioxidants. Think of all these tasty snacks as a buffer for the trauma your body will endure once the deep-fried items come out.

Finally, the belle of the ball -- the Kurobuta -- arrives wrapped in her golden panko glory. The center is slightly pink, as she is purposely cooked to medium-well. I highly suspect there is some brining going on, and maybe some tenderizing methods or agents, because the meat is pillowy soft and packed with juice. If you’ve ever cooked pork tenderloin in an oven then you would know just how easy it is to dry out this lean cut of meat. I asked the manager and got the expected answer:

"That’s what makes the Kurobuta pig so special."

According to the social media pages of Katsumasa branches in Taiwan, the chain uses an expensive far-infrared conveyor deep fryer, which holds the pork (or any other food that might float in oil) beneath the surface of the oil for the full conveyor cycle. This in conjunction with the even heat from the far-infrared quartz pipe heating elements (which supposedly also extends the life of the oil) yields consistent results and is a "gentler" way to deep fry. Real interesting tech. This sounds like the ideal setup to deep fry even more delicate items like fish or tempura. On a later visit to Katsumasa, I showed a picture of the fryer to the manager and she proudly confirmed that they too utilize the same one, shipped in from Japan.

In the spirit of the old school Michelin guide meant for motorists, where two stars meant the establishment was worth a detour, and three stars meant it was worth a special trip, Katsumasa deserves the latter accolade, if you are already a tonkatsu fan.

If you don’t end up enjoying the tonkatsu as much as I do, you can still take solace in the options at the next-level food court and get some grocery shopping done at the stellar Apita supermarket. The mall is just three stops west from Jing’an Temple on Line 2 -- a short journey for tonkatsu nirvana.

Katsumasa is located in B2 of the Arch Walk mall, at 179 Maotai Lu, near Loushanguan Lu. For more info, check our venue listing.