Standing outside of CWB's Tonkichi was a crowd of 20 at least, hovering over a small hostess' desk awaiting her to descend from the long hallway out to the main entrance. I waited there, squeezing myself to the front of the line. When the hostess returned while shuffling the menus, I asked whether I could make a reservation since the phone never got through. She waved dismissively, daring us to please her, and frowned upon flipping the pages. Turned out, they were all booked up (at that time, was October 2008) until...'Chinese New Year', as she spitted out every word after pondering at it. I believed that if she could she would've said they're all booked up until 'the end of time', the crowd dispersed and I left in desperation in search of the next Tonkatsu joint.
Then I found Butagumi Tonkatsu, a rather new establishment that escaped the press and others' attention. The menu was similar to the one in Tonkichi, so was the pricing. Even the setting offered similarities to Tonkichi, with its dim lighting and comfortable booths. The wooden tables, furnishing and all, conveyed a certain 'low-key'-ness to the entire eatery. A set lunch prix fixe ranges from $60 to $120 excluding Sundays and public holidays. On the first visit (soft opening) its signature Pork Cutlet Tonkatsu was also put on the set lunch menu with smaller portions. We meanly ordered one of that, and another a pork-tenderloin and shrimp cutlet combination. Then the fun arrived.
A Japanese mortar and pestle was placed in front of us, with toasted sesame seeds still warm inside. The waitress made a gesturing motion to guide us through -- grinding the sesame seeds until powdery, then add pork chop sauce out of the pot to make a dipping sauce for the cutlets. I have always liked my sauce chunky, with a nutty crunch of sesame seeds in it. With the mortar and pestle you really have no reason to settle for a consistency you don't like, as you can make your own.
Pork cutlet arrived looking radiant -- golden strips of thinly breaded cutlet, radiating an aura of heat as it's serving piping hot. Resting against a bed of ice cold juliennes of cabbage accomapanied by a bowl of rice, pickles and soup, the combo was a good deal. Biting into the cutlet. The first thing you will taste is the crispiness on the top, then through the thin coating you'll taste the inside -- the pork, with its juices sealed inside. The ample grainings of fat offered juices for the pork during the cooking process. It's crispy and juicy in every bite. The tenderloin was a little tougher, but the golden morsels were even more flavorful than the ordinary cutlet. The shrimps are of larger variety. The breading was excellent, and the flesh offered a different sensation to shrimps deep fried, as most of the time when shrimps are deep fried it'd be tempura. The ocean sweetness did not need any dipping sauce to accompany, as it would mask the freshness within it all. Cabbage is a standard side for Japanese cutlets, here a Butagumi Tonkatsu, the cabbage were thinly sliced like Tonkichi, and there were two different dressings to be choose from -- Yuzu Citron (fruity with a decided citrus tang), and Shiso (more grassy with a sharp tartness to it). You can have the cabbage plain as they were, as a palate cleanser, but I myself prefer to add the Yuzu dressing into the cutlet sauce for extra depth, while I use the Shiso variety for the cabbage. The waitstaff would come near with a bowl of fresh-cut cabbage, in case you request for more. The contrast between hot golden crispy cutlets set against cool crisp cabbage is a delightful combination of textures and flavours.
There are other cutlet-featured combos out here at Butagumi Tonkatsu. The Rice Bowl with Pork cutlet and red miso was an interesting choice. Instead of cabbage, a bowl of warm red miso sauce was served. The sauce was made with red miso, and the addition of red chilies offered a countering subtle heat that sneaked up on me on my first taste. The sweet taste rounded out as I swallowed but the miso flavour lingered on for quite a while. The cutlets were textbook just like the former combo. For each lunch prix fixe there is an accompanying beverage (the coffee is quite nice), or seasonal fruit like watermelon. For a la carte the watermelon is complimentary as well.
Leaving Butagumi Tonkatsu feeling satisfied, Tonkichi was not on my mind at all. Did I compare the two? Certainly I have -- Tonkichi has better (more fatty and juicy) cutlets than Butagumi, but the service here is way better than the staff at Tonkichi who literally dare you to impress them as they misplaced your orders occasionally, or not being welcoming even at the door. They are, afterall, two different restaurants, I don't expect to get a table at Tonkichi anytime soon, until then, I'll station at Butagumi Tonkatsu.
Note: Now that Butagumi are more popular among lunch crowds, they seem to have taken the signature pork cutlet off the set lunch menu. Also, calling in advance to reserve a table is a safe choice. The manager there never forgets a face and the few times I was there we had some quick chitchats and the staff will take care of your requests promptly.
Mortar and Pestle
Cabbage Juliennes for Refill
Pork Cutlet Combo
Spending per head: Approximately HKD80(Lunch)Other Ratings:
Value for Money 3