There’s a distinct shade in the Japanese foodie spectrum for tonkatsu
. It’s their British fish and chips, or American mashed potatoes and gravy: a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet that comforts the soul as much as it troubles the waistline. It’s so popular, in fact, that you will find it everywhere from grimy Japanese diners to nicer spots like Saboten, the Shinjuku, Tokyo-born chain that’s now spread to multiple continents. Its first China venture is in the hypermodern Parkview Green mall, decking out an airy, bustling space in the back of the basement with plenty of cubicle booths that, on our visit, were packed out with hungry diners.
Those crowds are a good sign, but the long wait may plant unfair doubts in your mind. Surely it’s hardly exciting grub when you can get the same plate at one of the other Sabotens around the world? The plastic recreations of the food in the front window might also be a minor deterrent. And how come the sets cost three times the price you’d pay at Japanese joints like Katoya or Suzuki Kitchen? It’s only fried pork; that’s not so hard to make. Egg, flour, pork, breadcrumbs, done.
But allay your concerns, especially if you’re a die-hard porkophile: Saboten knows what it’s doing. It’s a white-meat specialist and its brand history of 47 years has not been spent dilly-dallying around.
When done right, simple tastes can duke it out with plenty of haute cuisine – think of how a really nice piece of sashimi makes raw fish that much more appetising. As such, it’s worth the extra couple yuan to upgrade the meat in the tonkatsu sets (65-80RMB) to the top-shelf tenderloin, crusted with a thick breadcrumb exterior that gently gives away to the rich, slightly pinkish centre. It’s lean and tender enough that chewing seems like an unnecessary luxury, but it’s not in any way overcooked. There’s no greasy excess or uneven coating on the strips – which shows they know what they’re doing and that they’re doing it right. A pool of red miso sauce and spring onions enhances one set with a salty-sweet tang, while grated radish and a dash of citrusy ponzu sauce cool down another, though squeezing the accompanied grapefruit reduces it to a muddled, soggy mess.
It’s customary to eat these sets with a bed of minced cabbage salad and some sweet pickles – tradition that might also ease your dietary conscience after eating a slab of fried food. Here, both sides are unlimited: an eager server regularly stops by and asks if the master bowl needs to be refilled, so cheap jerks can easily fill up just munching away on greens with sesame dressing. Those who had the good sense to order meat should dip the pork in a house-brand sauce, mixed with a little bowl of sesame seeds. Obliterate the seeds with a wooden pestle to force out the fragrant sesame oil first, which gives the sauce a deep, nutty flavour. Rice included in the sets is also excellent, particularly the mixed-grain variety.
More substantial options involve sets of skewers, of which the juicy, savoury tomato and bacon (8RMB) and chicken subtly enhanced by a hint of shiso leaf (8RMB). None of these skewers are enough to substitute for an entire meal, but man cannot live on breaded pork alone. There’s also a number of shabu-shabuhot pot sets (98-145RMB) that come with bonus side dishes that range from the basic to the gluttonous. Japanese hot pot is less spicy than Chinese varieties: the reduced broth is sweeter and richer, with a plenty of extra meat. A number of pork rolls with cheese or veg are also plenty appetising.
Desserts don’t really suffice – there are some ice creams, but we’d rather go, sweating, off somewhere else for a refreshing treat. Both the vanilla (25RMB) and green tea with red bean (28RMB) were weirdly textured and grainy without the requisite amount of sweetness. Just go to the City Shop next door for an adequate sugary end to the feast. Saboten’s main draw is the cutlets: a feat they’ve sharpened and honed until that it’s nearly impossible to outperform, and a must-try for fans of the dish. Sure, it’s pedestrian, something fast-casual, but we left with big dopey smiles after each visit, even with our snooty Japanese food standards. Yes, it’s a chain. But for what it’s worth, it’s one of our favourites.