'Just like home'
Western dishes get Japanese treatment at unique Takkatsu
What may be the most authentic Japanese restaurant in the Chicago area serves Western food.
In Japanese, yoshoku ("Western food") refers to a category of dishes adopted and adapted by the Japanese from foreign cultures. One favorite is tonkatsu, pork breaded in a crispy coating and deep-fried, apparently based on schnitzel. "Ton" means pork, and "katsu" is the Japanized version of the word "cutlet." Different sources place the recipe's invention at various dates between 1895 and 1932.
Today, there are said to be more than 10,000 tonkatsu restaurants in Japan. Chicagoland has a single eatery devoted to this crusty, crunchy viand — Takkatsu — and the Japanese customers are flocking in. With good reason.
The last time I had tonkatsu this good, I was in a tiny restaurant in the basement of Sanno Park Tower in the Nagata-cho district of Tokyo.
Takkatsu originally opened in Hubbard Woods on the North Shore in 2001 but closed three years later. After more than a year, it's reopened in downtown Arlington Heights, much to the relief of its largely Northwest suburban-based Japanese clientele. The small, tidy storefront offers light wood chairs and Asian screens between restful sage-green walls. The tables are set with chopsticks only; you'll have to ask if you need a fork.
They've yet to do any promotion of the new location, but ninety percent of those who've crowded the restaurant since it opened in mid-August have been Japanese, says Barrington resident Walter Hladko, one of Takkatsu's owners. "The main compliment we get is, 'It's just like the place near my home.' "
Hladko and his wife, Phyllis, the general manager, are veterans of Japan Air Lines. Their partner, Steve Plunkett, was with the Japan-America Society, and a fourth partner, Tak Hata, lives in Japan. Takkatsu's chefs, as well as its furnishings, were brought from Japan.
As at tonkatsu-ya (restaurants) throughout Japan, the menu is short. In Japan, restaurants tend to specialize in one type of food rather than serve a mixed menu. Don't look for sushi here. Although the original restaurant offered it, the owners chose a more purist approach this time around. There's a California roll and few other maki, but that's about it.
Takkatsu offers three main types of tonkatsu, each made from boneless pork that's been pounded, dredged in flour, dipped in egg, rolled in fresh panko (extra-crispy Japanese-style breadcrumbs) and then fried till golden. The cutlets are served with a wedge of lemon and a mound of finely shredded raw cabbage, a traditional accompaniment that the Japanese believe helps prevent heartburn from fried foods.
Each table holds a wood-topped ceramic jug full of special tonkatsu sauce, with a wooden dipper. This thick, glossy brown concoction, with a pronounced Worcestershire edge, is the pride of every tonkatsu restaurant, each of which has its own secret recipe. And Takkatsu offers an excellent one. For $1 more, you can get a ponzu sauce with grated radish or a miso-based sauce, regional variations on tonkatsu sauce.
The pride of the menu is the kurobuta rosu special, featuring tonkatsu made from "black pork," the heavily marbled meat of fat, heirloom Berkshire pigs, a rare breed — dense, but tender and flavorful.
Takkatsu buys its coating crumbs fresh from a Japanese bakery. They envelop the pork with a delightful crunch. Light and nearly greaseless, my tonkatsu came out on a metal rack to ensure it stayed crisp.
The less expensive hitokuchi katsu, pork tenderloin medallions, also offer plenty of flavor, with good moist meat in the crispy coating. However, I found the fillet katsu, a version made with center-cut tenderloin, promoted "for a leaner taste," too dry.
The pork cutlet also comes as a sandwich, or you can get katsu curry. Here, the deep-fried pork medallions come on top of rice, covered with a generous dressing of mildly seasoned, rich and smooth Japanese-style brown curry sauce.
Beyond pork, the restaurant offers chicken katsu, made from organically grown birds; sake fry, salmon given the katsu treatment; and ebi fry, very large, breaded and fried tiger prawns. A "hamubagu" as it would be said in Japanese, or Japanese-style hamburg steak, is also available. Hladko says a few more items, including seasonal tonkatsu and bento combinations, will be added in the coming months.
All the entrees come with soup — a choice of routine miso or savory tonjiro (pork soup) with chunks of meat and thinly sliced root vegetables — plus rice and some disappointing house-made pickles. (The pickles are also sold as an appetizer; they're definitely not worth the price.)
Don't miss the crab croquettes appetizer, another classic yoshoku dish. (The Japanese make croquettes of everything.) Here, fresh crabmeat is mixed with a creamy white sauce, molded around crab claws that form a convenient handle, breaded and fried to a delicate crispiness. The contrast of the crunchy exterior and velvety center makes the dish.
Another fine appetizer, the fresh-tasting avocado maguro, features bits of diced avocado and cubes of cool raw tuna in zesty, wasabi-laced mayonnaise.
Desserts are red-bean or green-tea ice cream and black-sesame-filled mochi (rice-gum balls). Hladko says they hope to beef up the bar, which right now offers a limited selection of beer, wine, sake and shoju. Other beverages include some juices and the Japanese kids' drink, Ramune.
The service is somewhat uneven; the experienced waitstaff is fine, but the younger servers need more training.
161 Wing St., Arlington Heights, (847) 818-1860
Cuisine: Authentic Japanese-style pork cutlets
Setting: Tokyo-style storefront in downtown Arlington Heights
Price range: Appetizers $2.95 to $7.95; entrees $11.50 to $15.95; desserts $3.50
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: Major credit cards; reservations for five or more only (but smaller groups can call ahead to get on a waiting list)
Also: Free parking in the lot east of the restaurant and in the Vail Street garage (do not park in the lots on the west or across the street — you'll be towed); beer, wine, sake and shoju available; more extensive bar in the works
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.