The Search for Midtown’s Best Katsudon

What do you picture when you think of Japanese food? Sushi probably comes to mind first, right? Then maybe teriyaki of some sort? Possibly ramen something or other? While these answers are all correct, I’d like to assert my opinion that the greatest Japanese food is actually katsudon. What is katsudon, you may ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, it’s “a bowl of rice topped with a deep-fried pork cutlet, egg, and condiments.” So basically, it’s the one Japanese dish that Americans wish they had thought of. Deep-fried meat with egg? Sign me up!

I first discovered this wondrous food when I reviewed Benton Café on 45th street a few months ago. Even though Benton’s katsudon is relatively cheap, I was immediately smitten and vowed to try as many katsudon options in midtown as I could. Sadly, the dish is most often over the Midtown Lunch limit of $10, but if you look hard enough, there are options within our budget.

ISE / Men Kui Tei, 56 W. 56th St. (between 5th & 6th)

One of the first places I ventured to was the newly combined ISE Men Kui Tei. Of all the places I tried, this katsudon is possibly the most ordinary. I don’t mean to say that in a good or bad way, it’s just the one I ended up using as a standard when comparing all others. At $9.00 before tax, it’s under the ML budget so long as you order takeout and are not expected to tip. For that price, you’re getting a huge bowl of sit-down restaurant quality food. Highly recommended.

The pork itself is pretty tasty – juicy, flavorful, and served hot. The fried part isn’t as crispy as I would have liked, but this is pretty easy to overlook. The whole bowl has A LOT of egg in it, which is a very good thing. There was a sweet soy-like sauce throughout, which was also good. The best stuff is pretty much all on top of the bowl, so it was nice to have the sauce seep through and help make every last bite of rice enjoyable. There’s not much in the way of veggies, but the few mushrooms and onions in here are a nice touch. Overall, this is a totally satisfying meal. If you haven’t had katsudon before, I suggest starting with this one.

Dainobu, 129 E. 47th St. (between Lex and 3rd)

My second destination for katsudon was the Japanese deli, Dainobu. They’ve got a couple locations in midtown, but the one I went to was on 47th street. Most of their rice bowls and lunch entrees come prepackaged and have directions for reheating in a microwave.

I didn’t see anything specifically labeled “katsudon,” but there is a “pork cutlet with egg bowl,” which is essentially the same thing. At $6.50 before tax, this is by far the cheapest katsudon option I encountered on my journey. Unfortunately, those few dollars saved really seem to make a difference…

The best thing about this bowl is the size. Any dish under $8 that will totally fill me up is a good deal, but there’s really no comparing the quality of this to ISE Men Kui Tei or the other katsudon I tried. After two minutes in the microwave, the meat was soggy and chewy. The fried stuff was mostly tasteless and tended to slide off the rest of the meat. It wasn’t clear to me if this was due to the time spent in the microwave or if the pork was just cheap stuff to begin with.

The rice was soaked in a sweet sauce, which was the dominant flavor throughout. The egg was salty and the only real contrasting taste, but it was also sort of mushy and presented as an unattractive egg-y blob. Honestly, this meal was alright, but if you’re craving some good katsudon, it’s probably worth just spending a few dollars more somewhere else. If you insist on getting something cheap, I’d recommend BentOn Café over Dainobu – same price, but the katsudon is made fresh when you order.

Café 49, 12 E. 49th Street (between Madison and 5th)

Café 49 is a small Japanese takeout place that shares a kitchen with the much more upscale Shinbashi Restaurant. Café 49 has mostly prepackaged bento boxes, but also rice bowls and noodle dishes that are made to order. The katsudon is only available until 2:30pm and takes about 6-8 minutes for them to prepare. At $8.50 before tax, it’s only slightly cheaper than ISE Men Kui Tei, but still a whole $2.00 more than Dainobu.

Like the others, the portions are huge, but there are a few things that separate this katsudon from the rest. First, there was an unidentified, red topping in the bowl. I think it may have been ginger in some form, but I’m not sure. It was kind of spicy and added an exotic, almost cinnamon-like flavor to everything. The egg seemed super fresh and, unlike Dainobu, resembled actual egg. There was a brown sauce here, like at ISE Men Kui Tei and Dainobu, but it was less prevalent. This katsudon relied more on spices and good pork to keep me interested.

Curiously, the pork had a much darker color than everywhere else. It was a little chewy, but had a great flavor overall. Maybe it was a different cut of pork than other places use, but it was still perfectly juicy and enjoyable. As a whole, I’d suggest the katsudon at Café 49 if you’re looking for something a bit more colorful and exotic.

Katsuhama, 45 W. 55th Street (between 5th and 6th)

For the sake of comparison, my last destination was Katsuhama, a reasonably pricy Japanese restaurant that specializes in this fried pork katsu stuff. My order of pork loin katsudon was over $15 after tax, but I figured I owed it to myself to see what top-of-the-line katsudon is like. Plus, it came with a miso soup!

The miso soup was pretty good, but the katsudon was just so mouthwateringly gorgeous that I couldn’t stay away from it for very long. The egg was so perfectly cooked it seemed like it could have been poached, with tasty bits of yolk popping up here and there. It was draped over a steaming hot pile of rice and the most beautiful katsu I had ever laid my eyes upon.

This pork was BY FAR the most flavorful of all the katsudon I tried. Each bite was seriously bursting with juicy, pork flavor. Compared to the others, there was very little sauce here, but the quality and taste of the pork and egg was so excellent, I didn’t even miss it. Fifteen bucks is a lot of money to spend on lunch, but at least at Katsuhama the high price yields something noticeably superior to its competitors.

After Katsuhama, I didn’t feel much need to seek out other katsudon options. Having tried four different places at four different price levels, I feel like I’ve now got a pretty good understanding of the dish. Although, if you know of somewhere worth checking out that I missed, let’s hear it in the comments. Katsudon lovers, speak now!


  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Thanks for the reviews – a good katsudon is very satisfying. Now, must go have some this week….

    Btw, the red stuff is called beni shoga (literal translation “red/crimson ginger”). Can’t recall what makes it red, whether it’s some dye or something else, but it’s traditional to serve it with not just katsudon but also yakisoba, for instance. I suspect that, much like its use when eating sushi, it’s for cleansing the palate between different tastes.

  • There’s a katsudon place in Food Gallery 32 – I don’t know its name, but it’s in the back of the 1st floor where Bian Dang used to be and their paint is pink. They have a number of pork and chicken cutlet options. I’ve only eaten there once but I liked their chicken cutlet a lot — super crispy panko breading and good sauce. It also comes with the Korean yellow pickled daikon, which is not Japanese but is yummy.

    • User has not uploaded an avatar

      Doyaji Pork House in G32 is a katsu place, but I don’t *think* it had katsudon. (Their menu is very short.) I think of it is as being a bit mediocre, but that might just be because their curry katsu is so weak compared to Go Go Curry, which is the real shit.

  • not gonna lie, thought you’re not qualified to be reviewing katsudon when you’re calling that stuff “an unidentified, red topping”. seriously? beni shouga is a regular topping in japanese cuisine.

    also to add to checking out other katsudon spots, go to sunrise mart.

    • User has not uploaded an avatar

      Yeah isn’t that a standard at most japanese restaurants that have rice bowls?

    • I appreciate your honesty, but I was just writing the post from my own perspective, that of a katsudon noob. I thought the writeup makes that pretty clear.

      Luckily, Midtown Lunch has knowledgeable commenters that are able to fill in the gaps from my post!

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    >First, there was an unidentified, red topping in the bowl.

    lol wow. As others have mentioned that’s ginger and it tastes really good. You can get a whole container of it at Japanese markets.

    I am curious as to why didn’t you just ask the people working there what it was, before you wrote up this review?

  • People. Calm the heck down. this isnt the New York times. its a blog about eating in midtown. sheesh.

    Dont care what the haters say Chris, i liked the review and keep up the good work.

    • User has not uploaded an avatar

      Giving criticism =/ hater.

      Asking your server what you are eating isn’t investigative journalism, especially as something as basic as this. This, also, isn’t the first time this particular author has admitted ignorance to what they were eating either when it’s come to international cuisine. While I do appreciate that they are taking time and spending money for these reviews it’s ok to, at least, find out what you are eating rather than calling it “strange” or even “exotic.”

      A little knowledge goes a long way.

      • Hey now, I didn’t refer to anything as “strange.” The point I was trying to make is that, of the four katsudons in this review, only one had the beni shoga. I would never criticize a food just because it is unfamiliar to me.

        Your point is taken, though. I would have asked the server for more info, but I didn’t dig into the food until I had already taken it back to my office.

  • I’ve been going to Dainobu consistently for over 5 1/2 years. I think they’ve changed hands over the last 18 months or so. They used to have a nice Katsudon. Lately, as reviewed, it has been inedible. The meat is disgusting and yes, totally salty egg-like substance. The same with their chicken cutlet. If anyone can recommend a good Katsudon in this immediate neighborhood I’d really appreciate it!

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    While it is obvious that Chris is pretty young, I didn’t think his approach was terrible (and it is a slow day here). His entries, in general, show that he is pretty new to just about all ethnic foods and I commend him for expanding his palate and putting unknown stuff (to him) into his mouth.

    He showed some photos of what you get at different price points and described what he was eating to the best of his knowledge. Bottom line is that taste is subjective anyway and he stated which he liked best, which weren’t so great, and why.

    Once he gets some suggestions from the peanut gallery, I hope he tries more katsudon and provides us with a follow-up.

    • User has not uploaded an avatar

      I liked the post, but young Chris needs to have show more Japanese food bona fides before declaring opinions like, “the greatest Japanese food is actually katsudon.” There is a hell of a lot of delicious Japanese dishes

      • Yes, but name one place that has good, cheap okonomiyaki in the middle of Midtown.

      • He’s being declarative because it’s funny. The spirit of ML lives through eating things with “deep-fried meat” and egg included in the ingredients.

      • Are we looking for definitive, end-all-be-all declarations that are authoritative across all of the culinary arts, spoken by the apex of the profession and/or the declared, accepted, and acknowledged masters of each culinary tradition, such enough to leave Escoffier and the likes upon the ash heap of history?

        Or are we here for food blogging and opinion focused on lunches in Midtown with the focus on lunches $10 or under?

        In the spirit of clarification, I propose someone better than me develop browser extension that adds “in my opinion” after all uses of the word “is” in food-related opinion expression. I’m sure natural language processing is at such a point where we could make this happen, and as such, avoid future pickled ginger/beni shoga/fukujinzuke/etc. controversy where relevant to katsudon comparisons.

      • @Liz in the City: Where can you get Okonomiyaki in midtown period? Serious question. :)

      • User has not uploaded an avatar

        @Xerlic, you used to be able to get okonomiyaki from the Okadaman food truck. I haven’t seen them around in a while. Pure speculation, but I think they only lasted a few months before a Groupon deal or two combined with Sandy did them in. They used to park on 47th or 48th and Park.

        Tomi Jazz on 53rd btw 2nd and 3rd (which might be considered out of bounds)has okonomiyaki and you can sometimes get it from their deli/market upstairs that has some dishes refrigerated. They’ll even reheat the meals in the microwave if you want.

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Checking in as a fellow katsudon enthusiast. My favorite is at Ocha Sushi (46th btw. 8th and 9th) for now, but it may take some getting used to. The egg in this particular version isn’t runny like other places, but cooked through more like an omelet. Still seriously recommended… and ask for katsu sauce on the side.

    My previous favorite was at Express Chinese & Japanese but the owners changed and they don’t make it anymore. Seriously depressing. They had excellent oyako don as well.

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    A few things. This is an amazing article, speaking from the role of an inexperienced foodie not familiar with katsudon. I was introduced, through photos and information, to the varying qualities of Katsudon and their price ranges, which is some of the most helpful information to a non-professional-critic.
    More so, towards the “omg thats ginger wow” critics, I found no reference anywhere in the entire article claiming the author is a Katsudon Expert. Tnagumo explained in the first comment what the red topping is. Syntactically, the sentence didn’t even imply he didn’t know what it was, but that he wasn’t sure, and that the color had made him uncertain. Would you prefer a reviewer who neglects to mention the part of the dish he’s unsure about, or a reviewer who acts like he knows more than he does? I wouldn’t.
    Finally, the author also made sure that, despite not being 100% sure about his (correct) IDing of the condiment, he included a taste profile of the condiment to help any other adventurers. Exotic, almost cinnamon-like flavor? Sounds spot on to me.

    P.S. As far as the qualifications of the author, his inability to conjure the correct terminology is one of the reasons I read his posts, and why I’m here defending him today. Food criticism has long been a very haughty and elite profession; most of his posts resonate with my vernacular. The idea of restricting his right to share his opinion with us based on his inability to conform to these classist, unattainable standards of writing is most undemocratic.

    To the author: KEEP IT UP! LOVE YOUR STUFF!

    Aaaaand P.P.S 5DollarQueen, the proper ordering of a “Does Not Equal” symbol is “/=” not the other way around.
    A little knowledge goes a long way.

    • User has not uploaded an avatar

      >Aaaaand P.P.S 5DollarQueen, the proper ordering of a “Does Not Equal” symbol is “/=” not the other way around.
      A little knowledge goes a long way.

      Well thanks for letting me know. Appreciate it.

      • I thought it was =/= or if you’re handwriting, an equals sign with a forward slash through it?

        =/ and /= both look like emoticons to me.

    • Congratulations!

      I hereby name __YOU__ the FREAK OF THE WEEK

      (Mssr Fromage: I know its me – every single week – but c’mon, this particular freak deserves it more this week for his word choices alone)

  • Man, you guys are harsh. I’m filipino and I don’t get my boxers in a bunch when people say that they like “the little eggrolls”. :)

    Chris, check out Udon West on 46th between 3rd and Lex. I’ve never tried their katsudon, but I do enjoy their tonkatsu (I usually get it with curry).

    Also, +1 Sunrise Mart for the budget option.

  • Those are all pretty good. You can also try Sapporro

  • Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, all locations of which have closed in Manhattan AFAIK, used to offer huge vats of self-serve red pickled ginger. That stuff really jazzes up a dish, in my opinion.

    • Sorry, I only eat Yobogoya.

      Yobogoya, the taste will destroy-ya!
      The cheapest bucket of beef in Illinoi-a!
      Yobogoya, Yobogoya, Yoyoyoyoyobagoya!
      Yobagoya, makes you jump for joy-a!
      What kind of meat is it? It’s a mystery for ya.
      Legally we’re not allowed to call it meat,
      So bring the whole family for a tasty brown treat!

    • Yoshinoya: home of gyudon and awesome rants.

  • you should def try Onya. It’s only couple doors down from Dainobu and IMO it’s the best one because it is less than $10 and it tastes just as good as katsuhama

  • Yea they have it for lunch as well. Used to go there once a week to get katsu or oyako don. Less than $10 for lunch. Hear their udon is pretty awesome as well!

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