A Shrine to Pig Feet Opens in the West Village
Manhattan has hosted its share of weird-ass eateries. One place obsesses on peanut-butter sandwiches (Peanut Butter & Co.), while another tosses the Japanese octopus balls called takoyaki (Otafuku). A third squirts a rainbow of rice puddings (Rice to Riches), as a fourth dishes up mediocre risottos (Risotteria). There's even a place where the bill of fare is limited to round Philly cheese steaks dressed with what looks like a Bosnian red-pepper relish (BB Sandwich Bar).
Strangest of all so far is Hakata Tonton. Don't be deluded by the pink prosciutto lolling in the window: This is no Italian joint. The specialty is pig feet (known in Japanese as tonsoku); in fact, these porcine extremities occur in 33 of the 39 dishes on the menuand of the six that don't contain pig feet, three are desserts. Hakata Tonton is named after Hakata, an urbanization surrounding a major railway terminal in Fukuoka, a prefecture of Kyushu, Japan's southernmost major island, not counting the remote Okinawa. Take your pick: Tonton is either French baby talk for "uncle," or Japanese for the sound of lapping water. The restaurant occupies the former home of Taka in the West Village, notable as the first place in town with a female sushi chef, who also sculpted the restaurant's rough-hewn plates and bowls.
Her pottery persists at Hakata Tonton, which is the brainchild (or maybe brain bastard) of Himi Okajima, who trained as a French chef in Japan before coming to the United States. Now he appears on newscasts and talk shows, proselytizing for pig feet like a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a tent revival. And their virtues are not confined to the culinary: Himi claims that, since pig feet are rich in collagen, eating them will make your skin glow and provide other health benefits. He predicts that some day, pig feet will be as big as sushi.
Pig feet really are a specialty of Fukuoka, appearing most prominently in a plebeian noodle dish called tonsoku ramen, which is not on Hakata Tonton's menu. Rather, its centerpiece is a nabe dubbed tonsoku hot pot. At $12 per person, with a two-person minimum, it's a spectacular dish and quite a bargain. Clad in East Village black, the waitress sallies up with a bottled-gas hotplate. On it she arranges a flat cooking vessel lined with black volcanic stone. Spinach, tomatoes, dried mushrooms, scallions, sweet white onions, and hunks of pig foot in a rich sweet broth fill the pan. She lights the gas, which flames up merrilybe glad you're dining in winter, when you can appreciate the proximity of the fire. The nabe takes 15 minutes to cook, but you won't notice the delay, since you'll be busy tending to your entrée with an implement midway between a spoon and a ladle (spoodle? ladoon?).
Half of the menu consists of Japanese standards, with tonsoku substituted for the original ingredients. Thus, there are finger-shaped gyoza ($7), rendered excellent by the richness of the feet. "Are these wonton skins?" wondered Gretchen, prosecting one of the gyoza like a hand surgeon. Shumai ($8) have been improved by the meaty parts of pied de cochon, as the French reverently call them. These plump dumplings have grown much larger than normal, too, and the pair arrives with a groovy decoration of toe bone. If you really want to experience the alternately gluey and rubbery essence of tonsoku, order kara age, wherein pig-foot knuckles are cooked in bubbling fat like Japanese fried chicken. The glue factor is diminished in another dish one of the most delicious on the menufeaturing pale Japanese sweet potato that nearly disintegrates in a pig-foot broth.
Then there's the really nutsy stuff. How about a spaghetti carbonara ($12) made with pig feet instead of pancetta? It works magnificently, but maybe you don't want to down a quart of cream in addition to all the unctuous swine appendage. The Vietnamese spring rolls also work, partly because the tonsoku component is virtually undetectable. And using feet is a natural in Korean cold buckwheat noodles, which come dabbed with a spicy red dressing ($8), reminding us that Korea is only a stone's throw across the Tsushima Strait from Fukuoka.
"Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer," warbled blues legend Bessie Smith. And I'm joining her in song, though I think a bottle of pinot noir ($26) does a better job of cutting the grease.
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