First Look: Tonkatsu Tamafuji

Diners line up on Kapahulu Avenue for Japan-based chain.


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Tonkatsu Tamafuji opened its first Hawai‘i location on Kapahulu avenue in February. WE tried the deep-fried shrimp, left, and pork loin katsu.
Photos: Maria Kanai

 

Things I’ve waited two hours for: The Avengers movie premiere, Tokyo Disneyland rides, Destiny release on Xbox One and, now, tonkatsu.

 

Hokkaido’s Tonkatsu Tamafuji opened on Kapahulu Avenue on Feb. 11, and the lines filled the second floor of Hee Hing Plaza with folks hungry for deep-fried meat.

 

Tonkatsu hardly needs an introduction in Hawai‘i: pork cutlet, coated with fine bread crumbs, deep-fried to a crisp in hot, hot oil, and served with a ketchup-shoyu-Worcestershire sauce. When it’s done well, it’s divine. (Some have been known to bake the tonkatsu to be healthier, but, please, no.)

 

At Tonkatsu Tamafuji, you’ll find variations on the dish: chicken, oysters or shrimp instead of pork and topped with runny eggs for katsudon. My favorite has always been the traditional teishoku of tonkatsu, served with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup.

 

The Tonkatsu Tamafuji franchise has 11 locations in Japan, and the menu here comes with some exclusive-to-Hawai‘i items: cheese loin katsu, cheese chicken katsu, mix katsu and the one-pounder katsu. (OK, we get it, locals love cheese and eat a lot!) It’s a small restaurant, taking the place of the now-closed Sho-Chan Hiroshimayaki. You can see the copper pots in the open kitchen, filled with corn and canola oil heated at 356-degree temperatures, and the sizzle of meat meeting oil plays ambiance to the lively customer conversations.

 

It starts like all good tonkatsu restaurants do: Grind your own toasted sesame seeds. Then add one of two sauces—a sweet, traditional sauce or the other bold, tangy one. Or, do what we do and mix the two, ratio 2 to 1. There are also unlimited tsukemono of pickled cabbage, eggplant and umeboshi (plum). The umeboshi is a mainstay, while the other two are changed out daily.

 

We tried the pork loin ($19.50) and the pork tenderloin ($18.50) dinner sets. Each meal comes with nanatsuboshi rice (seasoned mixed rice and five-grain rice) and a white or red miso that comes with either with tofu and seaweed, or clams and green onions. There’s a generous side of finely sliced raw cabbage. The idea is that the cabbage cuts the oil and grease from the tonkatsu. With the homemade, vibrant yuzu and sesame sauce dressings, it’s pretty easy to eat your veggies.

 

The three-piece pork tenderloin set from Tonkatsu Tamafuji.

 

The pork tenderloin is more tender and juicier than the pork loin, which had a bit more chew. Both meats come encased in a thick layer of panko for a hot, fresh crunch. The shrimp ($5 à la carte) is good, but the meat is definitely the highlight here. Restaurant manager Yuji Iizuka says the meat is wet-aged for 12 to 15 days, vacuum-sealed in a bag and stored below 4 degrees Fahrenheit. This process breaks down the tough tissues, tenderizing the pork.

 

“A tonkatsu chef is like a sushi chef, where it takes training to learn how to put enough pressure onto pork for the panko. It takes time to learn the correct timing of frying the katsu. We take out the katsu from the fryer a little before the pork is cooked through, still pink inside, then let the heat of the pork do the rest of cooking. This way, the katsu is not overcooked,” says Iizuka.

 

Was it worth a two-hour wait? Depends on your love of tonkatsu. Our hope is that the owners will figure out a better system to manage the lines. Iizuka’s still working out the logistics of opening for lunch on weekdays, but recently adjusted the hours to open earlier at 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to help shorten the wait. He’s already considering the possibility of opening a new restaurant, which should help meet demand. Meanwhile, we predict Tonkatsu Tamafuji is here to stay.

 

449 Kapahulu Ave., open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 4 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. (closed Tuesday), (808) 922-1212

 

The 2018 Hale ‘Aina Awards ballot is now online! Vote for your favorite restaurants now through June 30 for a chance to win dining certificates from our Hale ‘Aina winners. Click here to vote now. Winners will be announced at the Hale ‘Aina Awards Ceremony on Sept. 17. Stay tuned to this page for updates.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY MARIA KANAI

 

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