Out of all the foods I have encountered while traveling in Japan, none might be more comforting and delicious than tonkatsu, a Japanese-style pork cutlet which is breaded and deep-fried to perfection.
While there are many great options in Tokyo to sample tonkatsu, none might be more famous than Maisen. Founded in 1965, Maisen now has locations across Japan and a few international locations.
On my recent visit to Tokyo, I stopped by their main store, Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten. This store was located near in the backstreets of Omotesandō, not far from Shibuya Station and Harajuku.
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While I was able to walk right in on my visit and grab a seat at the counter, I have heard the wait can often extend out the door during the weekends and during busy evening hours. If there is a line or you are in a rush, you can visit the outside take out counter. The counter served only certain items on the menu.
Interior of Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten
Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten was a much larger restaurant than met the eye. There were three separate seating areas: a counter, a Japanese-style room, and a main dining room.
When I walked into the restaurant, on the right hand side was a counter seating area. Most people sitting at the counter were dining alone, including myself. I felt sitting at the counter was a more intimate experience than sitting at a table. Sitting here allowed me to peak into the kitchen and get a better understanding of the inner workings of the restaurant.
While I didn’t venture upstairs on my visit, I was told there were two dining areas. There was a Japanese-style room with tatami seating. There was also a much larger open dining room with high ceilings and western-style tables.
Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten Menu
The menu at Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten was huge. It was so large that I didn’t bother trying to take pictures of it.
The menu was packed with an endless amount of choices, many with corresponding photographs. It was like reading a book. The menu explained different breeds of pigs, types of cuts, and everything else you might need to know about tonkatsu.
There were six different types of cuts on the menu.
Shoulder Loin (A) – A great tasting cut, complete with just the right amount of fat in the center to complement the meat. Has a rich flavor.
Loin (B) – A fine tasting cut with just the right amount of fat. This represents the highest grade of pork next to fillet cuts. Great flavor is contained within the fat on the outer side.
Fillet (C) – The highest grade of pork characterized by its fine soft texture. Features a minimal amount of fat resulting in a light and simple delicious taste.
Arm (D) – A cut with rich flavor and taste resulting from the concentration of porcine muscle.
Pork Belly (E) – Referred to as boned ribs, this cut forms an ideal balance of alternating meat and fat.
Leg Rump (F) – A lean cut with little fat. A soft, fine tasting meat that is full of vitamin B1.
Make sure you have a few choices in mind in case your first choice is sold out. Many items on my visit were sold out for the day when I arrived in the evening.
Roasted Tea and Grated Japanese Radish
Before my cutlet set arrived, I was given a small bowl filled with Japanese grated radish along with roasted tea (houjicha).
For how simple it was, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Japanese grated radish topped with bonito shavings. On its own, the radish was fresh, almost watery. The bonito added texture and gave the radish a salty ocean flavor. I was told to pour soy sauce into the bowl over the radish. The soy sauce added a sweet, salty, umami component which was very satisfying.
The hot roasted tea was just as great, especially on a cold winter night in Tokyo. Since it was roasted, the tea was smoky, slightly bitter, and not too sweet. It was simple but the perfect Japanese tea.
Kurobuta Loin Pork Cutlet Set
While there seemed to be an endless amount of options on the menu, including many sold out, I decided to order the Kurobuta Loin Pork Cutlet Set (3,100 yen or about $27.81). This signature set consisted of the pork cutlet, sliced cabbage, miso soup, white rice, and pickled vegetables. The sliced cabbage and miso soup were refillable for free on request.
Kurobuta pork, also known as Berkshire pork or Japanese black pork, is a rare breed of pork renowned for its high fat content and marbling resulting in a juicy, tender, flavorful cut of meat. The meat is considered so tender that you could cut through it with your chopsticks.
Since each pork cutlet was fried to order, it took a few more minutes than usual to receive my food, but this was fine by me. I was in no rush and I had no problem waiting for my cutlet to be fried fresh.
The pork cutlet was fried to perfection by chefs that clearly knew exactly what they were doing. The golden brown crust was more beautiful than anything I have ever had before. It was crispy, flaky, rich, and seasoned well without being greasy in the least bit. It wasn’t too thick or thin but just the right thickness. The crust remained crunchy and stuck to the pork until the last bite. It was perfection.
Even better was the kurobuta pork loin hidden below the crust. Each and every piece, to the last bite, was juicy and tender. There was not one overcooked or dry piece of pork. I enjoyed the contrast of textures between the crunchy crust and tender, meaty pork.
Often with pork cutlets, there is too much fat in each piece, resulting in a chewy, stringy texture. This was not the case with this kurobuta pork. It had the perfect ratio of meaty and fatty bits. And, even better, the fatty parts just melted in my mouth giving off a rich injection of flavor.
While simple, the sliced cabbage played a crucial role in the set. Eating tonkatsu on its own can be too rich for some. A few bites of the cabbage helped cut through the richness from the fat. While I didn’t find this pork cutlet to be too rich, I did enjoy the contrast of flavors and textures between the pork and sliced cabbage. And even better, the sliced cabbage was refillable so I took advantage of this.
On the side was a simple yet delicious bowl of miso soup. Sometimes simple is better. The soup, filled with small tender mushrooms, was light, refreshing, and had a well balanced salty, seafood flavor. I could really taste the dashi in each sip.
Finishing off the set was a bowl of white rice and pickled vegetables. The vegetables were sweet, salty, and crunchy. Just as with the sliced cabbage, the acidity of the vegetables helped cut through the richness of the pork. I enjoyed how the salty vegetables added not only a crunchy bite but a pop of color. Also simple was the white rice. I found myself eating each piece of pork with a little bit of rice.
While the pork was great on its own, on the counter, and at each table, was an assortment of dipping sauces and condiments.
The two main sauces were the Special Tonkatsu Sauce (seen in the middle) and Worcester Sauce (seen on the right). There was also another special sauce (on the left) that was served only with the Kurobuta sets. The workers recommended not drizzling sauce directly on top of the tonkatsu but on the side.
The tonkatsu sauce was thick and viscous with a sweet, salty, umami taste. The Worcester sauce, while salty, was more tart and sharp in flavor than the tonkatsu sauce. The special sauce was a mixture of both the tonkatsu sauce and Worcester sauce. It was thick and sweet yet acidic. It reminded me of a ponzu sauce with ginger mixed in.
There was also a spicy mustard which was fantastic. It reminded me of wasabi with the heat complimenting the sweet and salty cutlet sauces.
The service at Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten was not only fantastic but efficient. Even though there was a slight language barrier, the lovely ladies behind the counter constantly checked on me to see if I needed a refill on cabbage, miso soup, or drinks.
Every component of the Kurobuta Loin Pork Cutlet Set was fantastic. The miso soup, pickled vegetables, sliced cabbage, and even the white rice were not only delicious but complimented each other. The star of the dish, the fried kurobuta pork culet, was divine. The crunchy crust was perfect and so was the cooking of the juicy, tender pork cutlet.
If you are in the Harajuku or Omotesandō area, or really any part of the city, and want the best tonkatsu in Tokyo, then I highly recommend Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyama Honten. While not the cheapest tonkatsu in Tokyo, it was well worth the price. It was that good.
4 Chome-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
GPS Coordinates: 35.667983,139.711531