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!