NYC's Most Perfect Pork Cutlet at Katsuhama
The mortar contains seeds to be ground up for a do-it-yourself pork cutlet sauce.
In the '80s, the area around Grand Central Station was dotted with single-specialty Japanese restaurants -- much like many back in Japan -- which catered to the Japanese businessmen then ubiquitous in Midtown, believed to live in Westchester and New Jersey.
Two fatty Berkshire cutlets are one of your entrée choices.
The amazing collection of small restaurants included a place that specialized in live eels, plucked from the tank, eviscerated via a hook in the counter as you watched. During the winter, it switched directions and served the usual four-course blowfish sashimi dinner instead. A place nearby served mainly okonomiyaki, the Japanese savory pancake that could be filled with anything you desired: pork, shrimp, sprouts, fermented soybeans, corn, etc. If you were Japanese, they'd let you cook it at your table; if not, they insisted on cooking it for you.
Of this same era was Katsuhama, a place that specialized in breaded pork cutlets. And little else. In the front of the place was a separate sushi carryout operation of no particular distinction. As you went through the curtains to the restaurant in back, an employee would always leap forward and try to determine if you were there for the specialty -- deep-fried pork. Too often, people must have meandered in thinking it was the kind of all-around inexpensive Japanese restaurant serving everything, a genre that may have actually been invented in the East Village.
Even back then, the place offered two levels of leanness, which might best be described as "Lean" and "Fatty as Hell." The fatty version, which seems so contemporary even today, was characterized on the menu as "Berkshire Pork from Virginia." "Hey," we thought to ourselves, "aren't the Berkshires in Massachusetts?" As it turned out, that type of pork was to become famous 15 or so years later as an heirloom breed, and this place had it first.
Katsudon is another excellent option, rarely so perfectly rendered.
Skip the carryout Japanese establishment right inside the front door.
The Berkshire version consisted of a giant pork cutlet with a nice extra ridge of fat, crumbed and deep-fried to perfection. Or two of them, if you ordered the right entrée. It came with very rudimentary sides: a haystack of shredded raw cabbage to serve as a Spartan salad, a little smear of suspiciously Belgian mustard, and a mortar and pestle with strange grooves in the bowl and a pile of toasted sesame seeds in the bottom. It was up to you to grasp the pestle, pour in some of the accompanying thick brown sauce (somewhere between ketchup and thick soy sauce), and grind away as a dip for your pork.
The pork is deliriously good. Deliriously good. It can also be cooked into an omelet with green onions and soy sauce to be dumped on rice as katsudon. Either way, we're lucky this place is still there. Note that they'd added many things to the menu in the interim, like shrimp and chicken, fried in the same way, but don't let them lure you away -- the pork cutlets may be the finest in the land. They would make an Austrian cry.
Note there is also another, larger branch of this place that opened a couple of years ago, which, though they serve a similar pork cutlet, is really more of an izakaya, or drinking establishment.
Katsuhama 11 East 47th Street 212-758-5909
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