Korean pork again? Surely it's too soon! Yet as the air grows still and hot, the days melt into languor and the Dodgers swoon toward the cellar, the pull of summer food becomes impossibly strong — yes, the grilled hot dogs, yes, the icy watermelon, but also the fried foods whose crunch, snap and salty, oily pleasure mark something finite amid the torpor of the afternoons. Late summer is the time for fried chicken, still bubbling from its bath in oil, and for communal fish fries, well-lubricated with cold beer.
It is also the time for tonkatsu, Japanese fried pork cutlet. With its crispness, relative lightness and inevitable accompaniments of dark fruit catsup and cool chopped cabbage, tonkatsu tastes like August. (Japanese have different ideas about hot weather — they celebrate the hottest day of the year by eating eel — but that's another story.)
You find tonkatsu at many Japanese restaurants. Every izakaya and Japanese café features the dish, sometimes solo, sometimes bathed in thick curry sauce. The dish is a fairly recent addition to the cuisine, introduced by the Portuguese traders who were the first Westerners to trade with Japan: floured, dragged through an egg wash and rolled in jagged bread crumbs, creating a rugged surface with maximal crunch-enhancing surface area. Tonkatsu chefs fry specific cuts of the pig that showcase various qualities of the meat.
You can find one or two in the South Bay, and they are pretty good. But lately, I have been going quite a lot to Wako Donkasu in Koreatown instead — traditional Japanese tonkatsu with an almost inexplicable Korean edge.
Is it the few grams of spicy radish kimchi that make it onto the table? Is it the chilled barley water? Is it the dark wood and wrought iron? Is it the generosity of the cutlets themselves, which bring to mind the pork tenderloin sandwiches you get at Main Street Iowa cafés? It's hard to tell.
Wako Donkasu may have named itself for the most famous tonkatsu chain in Tokyo, and its food may be served in compartmentalized wooden boxes, but the vibe of the place, the brusque cheerfulness and big portions, are pretty much what you'd find at a Japanese restaurant in Seoul.
There are menus at Wako Donkasu, big, lavishly photographed documents, but it's pretty much understood what you are going to order: fried pork cutlet, fried chicken cutlet, or fried, thin New York steak, with a bowl of udon noodles or cold soba if you're in the mood. I've only seen the cheese cutlet in the menu picture, but it seems an odd and disconcerting beast, oozing its orange guts onto the plate, and I have often wondered if anybody has ever ordered the pork cutlet sandwiches, which look like the last hors d'oeuvres on the platter on bridge night. I have tried the orosi cutlet, fried pork onto which a 2-inch layer of grated daikon has been troweled, and I probably wouldn't get it again.
The waiter brings out toasted sesame seeds in a ridged bowl of the sort Japanese use to grate taro, and she hands you a pestle. You grind the seeds into the ridges, either coarsely or into a powder. The fragrance is overpowering. Your first course, just as it might be at a palace of modernist cuisine like El Bulli, is a perfume, a promise of food that is almost filling if you think about it hard enough. You are almost disappointed when the waiter pours tonkatsu sauce into the bowls — you need to flavor your meat, but the fragrance fades away.
The food comes, fitted into compartments in a wooden container: cabbage salad lightly dressed with a squash-inflected dressing, a bowl of miso soup perhaps, and the pork cutlet, which is the size and shape of a deep-fried Zagat guide, perfectly crunchy, trimmed of most of its fat. The chicken cutlet is bigger, juicier — also presliced, although you wonder if it spurted like chicken Kiev at the first breach of the knife. The sauce is thick, dark, fruitier than its Japanese equivalent, also less pungent for some reason, and the memory of the sesame is stronger than its flavor in the final condiment. You are finished before you know it. You are happy. You look forward to the evening ahead.
WAKO DONKASU | 2904 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown | (213) 387-9256 | Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | No alcohol | MC, V | Lot parking | A second branch, at 3377 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown, offers lunchtime delivery; (213) 381-9256 | Cutlet meals $9.95-$11.95; combo meals $12.95-$16.95 | Recommended dishes: pork cutlet, chicken cutlet