Narikura Tonkatsu, Tokyo

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17/20 What does it all mean?

 Food Icon 9.5 | Service Icon 3 | Ambience Icon 2.5 | Value Icon 2


Thumbs up

  • The best Tonkatsu in Tokyo, likely the world
  • Watching the Chef was a performance in itself, like a highly trained Sushi Itamae at work

Thumbs down

  • The wait. But then again, pork prepared and cooked to order takes time
  • Cash only

Recommended dish(es) – What to order at Narikura guide

  • Kiramugi or Aguu Breed Pork Tonkatsu (if you’re willing to splash out)
  • Signature 3cm Thick Cut Tonkatsu

TL;DR – Skip Tonki Tonkatsu; the best Tonkatsu in Tokyo, and possibly the world is at Narikura. The batter may be better at Tonta Tonkatsu, but the pork is better at Narikura. Be prepared to wait (in line and for food) and you’ll be rewarded with a highly skilled chef making Tonkatsu with some of the finest pork in the world.


Update – Since my first visit to Narikura and writing this blog several months after, Narikura’s local and international foodie popularity has exploded.

By the time you hit my review, most of you will already have heard of Narikura and are already convinced to line up in rain, hail or shine. You’re likely here because you need help with the menu and want to know what to order. I’ve added a breakdown of Narikura’s menu and recommendations on what to order below.

For those who have not heard of Narikura, or just need a bit more convincing, read on.


Narikura Tonkatsu Loin

“Ton-fkn-katsu.”

The 3 words that blurt out of my mouth upon my first bite, my mind too absorbed in processing how this mere piece of pork could taste so great to provide coherent sentences. But why was I here, having mindblowingly good Tonkatsu? To answer that, we must go back a step.

I didn’t always like Tonkatsu. After all, what was there to like? A deep fried thin piece of chewy pork that made cardboard seem juicy by comparison. How wrong I was.

You like pork belly right? And you like fried chicken right (don’t lie, we all do)? Well, good Tonkatsu tastes like the combination of both; tender and juicy pork, perfectly deep fried with a light crispy crust to seal in all the juices.

So when I went on my food pilgrimage of 2014, I decided to seek out the best Tonkatsu in Japan, one where the family had been perfecting their craft over several generations. I discovered that Katsuzen is the only Tonkatsu restaurant in the world to have a Michelin star, but to my surprise, it was not that well regarded by locals or critics, ranking only 10th in Tokyo by the trusted Tabelog. What’s 1st? You guessed it, Narikura.

Narikura Chef

Chef Seizo Mitani-san. Photo credit – @yewwooi

The Tonkatsu at Narikura surpassed my wildest expectations, yet I felt an incredible sense of sadness. Sadness that Tonkatsu is misrepresented to so many people around the world, sadness that, as a result, Tonkatsu is not more popular, and sadness that many may never have the privilege of having Tonkatsu as it should be.

But all is not lost. If you are ever in Tokyo, eat at Narikura, even if you hate Tonkatsu with a passion. Because I’m willing to bet that after one bite of Narikura Tonkatsu, you’ll only be able to say 3 words – “Ton-fkn-katsu”.

Narikura (成蔵)
1-32-11 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Tokyo (map)
+81 3 6380 3823
http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1305/A130503/13114695/

Narikura Preparation

This isn’t even my final form.

It was almost surreal, like something from an anime. To see this lone chef, whose skill had been honed over generations, brow furrowed from concentration on this single cut of pork. Contrast this to the rest of the world, where Japanese restaurants treat Tonkatsu as an after thought, one of the many items on the menu.

Each cut was individually sliced, breaded and fried to order. The way the chef treated the meat was as if he was preparing the finest cut of Matsusaka Wagyu. But no, it was “just” a cut of pork, a damn good one at that.

The world seems to be inspired by Sukiyabashi Jiro (Jiro Dreams of Sushi); his dedication, his skill, his relentless pursuit of perfection. But the thing I love about Japan is that this philosophy is ingrained in their culture, that the story of Jiro is just one of many stories across Japan. This is the story of Narikura.

Narikura Tonkatsu

Kuramagi Tonkatsu Loin (250g/3cm cut), my favourite cut – ¥2890/$29 AUD (9.5/10)

Eating Kuramagi Pork was like eating Wagyu for the first time. It was so much juicier and tenderer that I could not believe it was actually pork. Like Wagyu has ruined me for all other beef, this may well have ruined me for all other pork.

And the perfect panko crust, crispy enough to provide crunch but soft enough to melt away, once in your mouth, to give way to the flavours of the pork. A touch of Tonkatsu sauce (basically a thicker version of Worcestershire sauce) adds a tang and an extra dimension to the Tonkatsu.

What to order at Narikura

Narikura’s menu is all in Japanese, so here’s guidance on what and how to order in very thorough detail (which makes for excellent reading material when waiting in the queue). Otherwise, click here for the TL;DR (summary).

Note – this guide is accurate as of 1/1/17. I will do my best to keep this updated if and when Narikura changes their menu. If the menu has been updated with new specialty breeds, please leave a comment below to let me know.

Menu Format

  • Page 1 – Introduction / what makes Narikura the best
  • Page 2 – Fillet (Hire) cut breakdown
  • Page 3 – Loin (Rosu) cut breakdown
  • Page 4/5/6* – Specialty Breed Pork (*depending on availability)
  • Page 7/8 – Regular Menu

The Cuts (pages 2-3)

Loin (Rosu) or Fillet (Hire)?

If you prefer your pork with more fat, ask for loin (rosu/ロース); if you prefer leaner and more tender pork, ask for fillet (hire/ヒレ). For those who are more familiar with beef, pork loin is equivalent to a beef sirloin while pork fillet is equivalent to a beef eye fillet. Personally, I prefer the loin.

While the choices stop there at most Tonkatsu restaurants, you have a few more options at Narikura. These are outlined below –

Narikura Loin

Loin/Rosu (ロース). Photo credit – Narikura

Loin (口ース) – 130g

  • Lower cut of loin, near the “waist” of the pig (end pieces)
  • Moderate fattiness
  • Moderate tenderness

Superior Loin (上 ロース ) – 190g

  • Upper cut of loin, near the shoulder of the pig (front pieces)
  • Leaner compared to other cuts
  • Meat quality is similar to the rest of the loin, but has more marbling
  • Deepest and richest flavour of all cuts

Special Loin (特ロース) – 250g (3cm cut)

  • Signature loin cut
  • Middle cut of loin
  • Highest quality
  • Fattiest of all cuts, with the outer edge fat containing umami and many other distinctive flavours
  • Most tender (softest)

Narikura

Fillet/Hire (ヒレ). Photo credit – Narikura

“Chatonbriand” (シャ豚ブリアン)

  • Signature fillet cut.
  • Made using the softest part from the center of the filet meat.
  • For beef, this cut is called “chateaubriand”. Chatonbriand is a play on the words where “ton” (豚), the Japanese kanji for pig, has been slotted in.
  • This cut is extremely rare as it is only 1.4 – 1.7% of the carcass weight and there is only enough to make one serving in a filet that is 20cm or longer.

It is recommended you taste the first piece of meat without condiments to appreciate the flavour of pork. Use tonkatsu sauce or rock salt, one piece at a time, to avoid a soggy panko crust.

Specialty Breeds (pages 4-6)

Narikura Specialty Breeds

Pork marbling. Photo credit – Narikura

In addition to the standard menu, they also offer a selection of specialty breed pork (usually between 1 to 3) which are rotated based on season/availability.

Below is an outline of the specialty breeds that may be available –

Kiramugi (煌麦豚) – Niigata (menu)

  • My personal favourite.
  • Pork is characterised by a rich oleic acid flavour component (olive oil is predominantly composed of oleic acid).
  • Melting point of the pork’s high quality fat is as low as 34℃, resulting in a juicy texture.
  • It is also healthy, including α-linolenic acid and vitamin E, which is said to reduce bad cholesterol.
  • Unlike regular pigs (corn fed), Kiramugi pigs’ feed is up to 70% wheat for better flavour.
  • Wheat has a lot of minerals, vitamins and dietary fibre. There are also natural minerals that contain a lot of calcium and absorb the smell of meat.
  • Wheat feed is also mixed with lactic bacteria and Natto bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) to keep the intestinal environment of the pig clean.
  • (Large Yorkshire x Landrace) x Duroc – a special cross of three breeds and (Landrace x Duroc) x Duroc cross.

Aguu (豚あぐ) – Okinawa (menu)

  • One of the leanest out of the specialty breeds, but with the most flavour.
  • Both delicious and rich in nutrients and is lower in cholesterol while containing 3.5 times more glutamic acid (a type of amino acid that gives it a rich flavour) and twice as much essential amino acid than regular pork.
  • Agu pigs grow slowly compared to normal pigs. The slow growing process results in more complexity and depth in flavour. Normal pigs grow up to 110 kg in about 210 days, but in the case of Agu pigs, it takes about 240 days.
  • Ryukyu native species Agu is said to have been from China to the Kingdom of the Ryukyus over 600 years ago.
  • It was raised everywhere but after World War II it fell to the point of extinction. It has been resurrected by a few dedicated people who wish develop the Agu brand pig.
  • Agu is only grown in Okinawa and is often referred to as the “treasure of Okinawa”.

Kurobuta/Black Pork (黒豚) – Kagoshima

  • Descended from English Berkshires, known for their shorter muscle fibres (tenderness) and lots of marbling.
  • Very famous in Japan, though not necessarily always the best breed.

Iwachu buta/Rock Pork (岩中豚) – Iwate (menu)

  • Light taste.
  • SPF (Specific Pathogen Free) – the pigs are checked once a year to ensure that it is free of harmful pathogens.
  • Results in healthier pigs that have no smell and less acne (who knew pigs could get acn).
  • SPF is achieved through pigs with less stress, raised in a more spacious environment. Feed is a blend of wheat, barley and vitamin E.
  • This pork has 3 times the amount of vitamin E compared to normal pork, which prevents meat deterioration and drip loss.
  • Also offered at Butagumi.

Yukimuro-Jukusei buta/Snow-aged Pork (雪室熟成豚) – Niigata (menu)

  • Personally a bit underwhelmed by this (though I’ve always thought wet-aging is cheat/shortcut and results in an inferior product).
  • Snow-aged between 0-5℃ and between 89-95% humidity.
  • During the ageing process, the meat fibres break down (more tender) and free amino acid increases (umami taste becomes stronger).
  • It is vacuum wrapped so it’s essentially wet-aged pork, using snow to control the temperature rather than a traditional fridge.
  • A “snow room” is supposedly superior as it is not temperature controlled and does not require defrosting, resulting in an indoor environment that can age at a constant temperature and humidity.
  • Snow-ageing has also been used for rice, fruit trees and vegetables to increase sweetness, vitamins and umami flavour.
  • Given that dry-aged is known to produce a superior product than wet-aged, I wonder why there are little people who dry-age pork.

Regular Menu (pages 7-8) (menu)

The regular menu is similar to what you will find at regular tonkatsu restaurants, offering Loin (Rosu) and Fillet (Hire) in different sizes.

Mitani san’s signature is the 3cm Cut Tonkatsu (250g) –

  • The cheaper option compared to the specialty breeds.
  • Marginally less flavour and marginally less fatty. Nevertheless, still one of the best Tonkatsus I’ve ever had.
  • Despite an “inferior” cut, you still get the same care and skill from the chef, and the panko crust is just as good.

Contrary to popular belief, Tonkatsu is deep fried at a low temperature of 140°C for about 20 minutes. This maintains the juiciness of the pork and ensures a crisp crust.

The regular menu uses Kirifuri-Kogen (霧降高原豚) pigs bred on the rich soil of Nikko which results in high quality meat. The pork is tender, has no smell, and has decent amount of marbling.

You can definitely notice the difference between the pork on the regular menu and the specialty breed pork, but the difference is not a gaping wide one. The specialty pork has a stronger taste of pork and some specialty pork are just that bit more juicy and tender. Whether that final “1%” is worth the extra cost is ultimately up to you and your budget. If you’re sharing, I’d recommend getting the same size tonkatsu from the regular menu and specialty breed menu for comparison.

TL;DR

Meat Budget Appetite Recommendation
Fatty Unlimited Bottomless Kiramugi Ton 3cm Cut Loin (250g)
煌麦豚特ロース (250g)
Normal Kiramugi Ton Loin (190g)
煌麦豚特上 ロース (190g)
< ¥2500 Bottomless Kirifuri-Kogen 3cm Cut Loin (250g)
霧降高原豚特ロース (250g)
Normal Kirifuri-Kogen Loin (190g)
霧降高原豚上 ロース (190g)
Medium Fatty Unlimited Bottomless Kiramugi Ton Loin (190g)
煌麦豚特上 ロース (190g)
Normal Kiramugi Ton Loin (190g)
煌麦豚特上 ロース (190g)
< ¥2500 Bottomless Kirifuri-Kogen Loin (190g)
霧降高原豚上 ロース (190g)
Normal Kirifuri-Kogen Loin (190g)
霧降高原豚上 ロース (190g)
Lean Unlimited Bottomless Kiramugi Ton “Chatonbriand” (200g)
煌麦豚特シャ豚ブリアン (200g)
Normal Kiramugi Ton “Chatonbriand” (135g)
煌麦豚特シャ豚ブリアン (135g)
< ¥2500 Bottomless Kirifuri-Kogen “Chatonbriand” (200g)
霧降高原豚シャ豚ブリアン (200g)
Normal Kirifuri-Kogen “Chatonbriand” (135g)
霧降高原豚シャ豚ブリアン (135g)

Note – Kiramugi Ton availability is based on the season and remaining stock. If not available on the day, substitute for another specialty breed pork.

Narikura Exterior

Narikura’s inconspicuous entrance can be easily missed when there is no line

I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words. I ended up coming back to Narikura three times in my short 8 day stay in Tokyo, and in a city where you can find the world’s best sushi, wagyu and ramen, that means a lot.

So fellow foodies, what’s the best pork dish you’ve ever had?

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18 thoughts on “Narikura Tonkatsu, Tokyo

      1. Hi,

        I was trying to book nakahara as well, but the concierge told me they didn’t take phone reservations. What’s the best way to get seats?

        Regards, Yuhun

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Hey Eric,

    Just went this week, based on your recs. Have to agree, this is the winner from all accounts. I have to say I ordered the large cut (@3,900 yen) of sirloin as I like my meat fatty “Loin (ロース)” – the queuing made me hungry.

    Meat was absolutely spectacular. I swear this was almost looked like wagyu beef disguised as pork! The cut I had looked even fattier than the ones here. Really well-marbled. Not forgetting the lighter style of the batter. It’s of a lighter color than the usual ones which are darker brown. I liked that too, but really couldn’t focus with how good the pork was.

    Will definitely be back. Great article.

    Yuhun

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric,

        If I remember, it was on the right side of the menu. And the fatty cut ‘sirloin’. Whole menu is in Japanese so that didn’t really help. But I did take a picture of the menu, so hopefully someone who understands Japanese can translate. I’ll email you the picture.

        Regards,
        YH

        Like

      2. Eric,

        Here you go, picture of the menu.

        Fatty one is the one on top

        [image1.JPG]

        Here’s a picture of it, largest cut

        [image2.JPG]

        Regards, Yuhun

        Like

  2. This place looks fantastic.
    Im visiting Japan in December, so I’ll pay this tonkatsu restaurant a visit at lunch.
    Booking high end sushiyas or kaiseki restaurants in Japan is a nightmare, so im glad i cant just step in here and have meal
    Great review btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and the kind words!

      Yeh booking high end restaurants can be a pain, especially when you just want the flexibility of waking up and eating what you want. I would recommend Shimada as well, in terms of places you can step in and have a meal. Kaiseki style food, in a more casual standing izakaya setting.

      Let me know how your thoughts on Narikura when you visit 🙂

      Like

  3. Hello,

    Fantastic review and photos – I will be going to Narikura in December because of your review. I just have a few quick questions if you don’t mind.

    1. How would you suggest someone who can’t read or speak any Japanese to order from the menu at this restaurant? Can they speak and explain the menu in English?

    2. Since you said not all the specialty breeds are available at one time- which breed and cut do you recommend for someone who doesn’t like too much fat or too lean but somewhere in between?

    3. Aside from the 3 specialty breeds you mentioned do they ever have any other better breeds?

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joseph

      First of all, thanks for reading. No problems with the questions.

      1. The staff at Narikura can’t really speak English. However the menu is pretty small, so there isn’t an overwhelming number of items to choose from

      2. I would recommend Kuramugi Ton. You can either go for the loin (ro-su in Japanese) or fillet (hi-re). Loin is fattier and my usual cut. It’s similar to the Sirloin on a steak. The fillet is similar to Tenderloin/Eye fillet steak, supremely tender but little to no fat. If you do go the loin, I would recommend the 190g or 120g cut. The 250g cut is cut from the centre of the pig which is usually the fattiest (and probably too fatty for you)

      3. The breeds depends on their season. I’ve been recently and currently they have a Kagoshima Black Pig, Kiramugi Ton and an Ice Cured pork. Having had all of them, my favourite is the Kiramugi Ton. Each specialty breed is given a full page and is in the centre of the menu (first page being an explanation of the cuts, the last page being the normal menu). The Japanese words for Kiramugi Ton and Loin/Fillet are in the review so you can line it up with the menu.

      Let me know if you have any other questions. Hope you enjoy! 😊

      Eric

      Like

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