Tonki no Tonkatsuya, Meguro

Food & Drink - May 1st, 2009

by Robert Forrest

“So there’s this really cool restaurant that does pork in Meguro.” Half of New Yorker’s statements begin with ‘so,’ and when he says so we usually go. It must have something to do with his being a lawyer. People occasionally mention the furniture stores Meguro is famous for, but I have never stepped foot inside one, nor most of the many restaurants I am assured the town has to offer.

“There’s always a queue, I mean, this place is popular.” Quite how popular I did not realize until I opened my scorched eyes some ten minutes later and discovered we were at the end of a line with as many people queuing as eating. But here I should explain the lighting: bulbs, seemingly hundreds of them, like a magnified firefly forum. You are blinded as soon as you enter Tonki’s, before being asked to decide between fillet and roast, and you can still feel your pupils shrivel as you gaze across the huge open room with its central cookers.

Only it doesn’t feel like a kitchen—where is the mayhem, the shining artillery of crockery and zinc-coated benches? For all the patient queuing and smooth activity this could have been a post office. Or the studio from Harry and the Hendersons: a bald expanse of wood seared by the lighting with its isolated benches made me half expect a camera crew come sliding by. Or at least Harry.

New Yorker interrupted, “So this place has been here 80 years—and that guy is the original owner, right there.” I was watching the old guy picking the pork from its battered bath, overlooking his slack skinned father alongside. I have never seen such a content guy—80 years doing the same thing, smiling warmly to himself and the meat he cuts. One down the middle then five across, one down the middle then five across, over and over, making sure each piece is perfect as he plants it on a plate with a cabbage salad before it is handed to his thinly-stretched audience around the perimeter.

His grandson brought our plates to us and we tempted the first piece from the rest of the fillet, observing the cross-section of thin yellow batter sandwiched between tanned bread crumbs and pale pork. Very good, if not the I-must-be-dreaming sensation promoted by their American spokesman. That came later as I tasted the miso soup: an extraordinary salty, wet kiss of soy and porcine pieces that stirred the tongue and moistened the lips. Though there are tables upstairs, sitting at the counter is where you want to be—and for that you have to queue. Armed with a beer on a Sunday evening, it is a small wonder this place has been around so long. One only hopes the rise in land value is enough to cover the electricity bill.

Open 4–10:45pm Wed-Mon (closed some Mondays)
Shimo Meguro 1-2-2, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-3491-9928