Whose tonkatsu reigns supreme?

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I don’t know what it is about tonkatsu, but ever since Kimukatsu brought its storied 25-layer pork cutlet to Waikiki in March, the question I’ve been asked most is, Have you tried that new tonkatsu place yet?

Yup.

What did you think? people ask. How does it compare with Bairin?

Until last week, I couldn’t answer that. I’ve never thought much of tonkatsu. When I lived in Japan I knew it mainly as cheap cafeteria food, the kind you bypassed in favor of the curry rice with the gristly beef because you knew the katsu would be greasy, dry and tough. And that’s how it’s usually been when I’ve ordered it here, which is why I never felt compelled to try Waikiki’s premium Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin.

Until Kimukatsu came. Drawn by reverent descriptions of paper-thin pork stacked in the aforementioned 25 layers, deep-fried low and slow for 8 minutes, then stood vertically for 2 minutes to seal in the juices, I was right there cracking apart my chopsticks within two weeks of its opening.

So how was it? Revelatory enough to inspire my first pilgrimage to Bairin. Kimukatsu showed me that tonkatsu, like tempura or sushi, can span a range from godawful to sublime. Count me a fan of both shops.

But IMHO, between the two there is a hands-down winner. Here’s my head-to-head comparison.

KIMUKATSU vs. BAIRIN

History

Kimukatsu: First restaurant opened in Tokyo’s Ebisu in 2003 — so it’s a newcomer in Japan, too. Claims to be Japan’s most famous pork cutlet chain. In Waikiki since March 2012
Bairin: Based in Tokyo’s Ginza since 1927; now under third-generation ownership. Totally old-school. Claims to have invented the tonkatsu sandwich. In Waikiki since 2007

Specialty

Kimukatsu: The 25-layer, slow-cooked thing. Also has different stuffings like cheese and black pepper, tonkatsu sauces including demi-glace and nanban (tartar-like), and dipping sauces like yuzu-pepper
Bairin: Premium pork, including kurobuta; different grades of pork; different thicknesses

Cost

Kimukatsu: Starts at $19 for a teishoku with a small but thick tonkatsu, unlimited rice (cooked to order), unlimited sliced cabbage and unlimited miso soup; plus pickles; goes up to mid-$20 range
Bairin: Starts at $19 for a teishoku with medium-size loin tonkatsu, unlimited rice and unlimited sliced cabbage; plus miso soup and pickles; goes up to mid-$30 range for kurobuta

The sides

Rice: Kimukatsu’s steaming, cooked-to-order rice is a new dining experience. Winner: Kimukatsu
Tonkatsu sauce: Both sharply tangy-sweet. For higher-priced cuts, Bairin provides toasted sesame seeds for you to grind to accompany your sauce, adding depth and a comforting, nutty fragrance. Winner: Bairin
Miso soup: Bairin’s is good but without distinction. Kimukatsu’s simple broth is smoky and aromatic. Winner: Kimukatsu
Pickles: Who cares, really? For sticklers, Bairin offers basic quick-salted head cabbage. Kimukatsu’s dual offering is more satisfying and elevated. Winner: Kimukatsu

Finally, the tonkatsu

Kimukatsu: The plain $19 katsu is small, thick and riding atop a wire mesh platform to avoid soaking in its own juices. Panko exterior is light and crisp, the multi-layered interior incredibly tender and gushing with juices. The problem? The juices taste not of pork meat, but pork fat. You can’t escape it. It fills your mouth with every bite. The lasting impression: Taste of pork fat.
Bairin: The basic, 4.6-ounce, non-kurobuta $19 katsu is thin and soaking in its own juices on the plate. As tender as chicken, it has just enough toothsomeness to be recognizable as meat and is surprisingly juicy. Pork fat is limited to a narrow rim at one edge. I never realized how much better pork fat tastes in controlled quantities, or how satisfying the texture of thick, tender cuts of meat could be, until I tried Bairin. Lasting impression: Can’t wait to go again.

Overall winner

Bairin

Don’t hate! I know people who prefer Kimukatsu. And if you revel in pork fat, you might too. For me, the differences are strong enough to be defining. If I get to choose where to eat, you can bet I’ll be at Bairin.

Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin
255 Beach Walk
808-926-8082

Kimukatsu
Aston Waikiki Joy Hotel
320 Lewers St.
808-922-1129

17 comments
SSKAKBY
SSKAKBY

I've never been to either, but you should try Yamagen's tonkatsu.   Excellent, but you have to eat it there (versus take out).

snow
snow

i love bairin but guess i will now have to try kimukatsu to make sure you are right!  ;o)  lol.  i would like to try kimukatsu - at least to see how much difference the layers of pork make.  sounds interesting (though, not as much so in your review!?).

 

 @Melissa808  - been to bairin a few times and their tonkatsu has been awesome!  melt in your mouth and juicy deliciousness!

 

Cat
Cat

I heart Bairin. Tonkatsu sandwiches are the bomb. :)

EurekaGal
EurekaGal

So...it seems pointless to even ask. But to represent the gf community I WILL ask: Does this come in gluten free? Pretty please?

M
M

Hello Mari,

I never been to either one, I guess I have to check both of them out now.

Melissa808
Melissa808 moderator

Did I go on an off night? When I went to Bairin, the katsu was dry and completely not worth the price. 

Annoddah_Dave
Annoddah_Dave

EO:  Guud review, very helpful, but, who wins the parking contest?

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @SSKAKBY thnx for the tip, putting that one on my list to try. lmk what u think if u try bairin or kimukatsu.

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @snow  @Melissa808 no, kimukatsu is v good -- it's the place that showed me how elevated tonkatsu can be. the 2 deciding factors for me were 1) texure -- too soft! and 2) that pork fat juice. if u go, will u let me know what u thot? :D

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @EurekaGal sry. really sry. i'll let u know if i hear of a gluten-free tonkatsu :(

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @M good plan. just don't go on same day, for me both are v filling.

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @Melissa808 i am shocked! will have to go back and reconfirm this for u. even the cold takeout tonkatsu i've had from bairin was juicy and delicious.

nonstopmari
nonstopmari moderator

 @Melissa808  is right. park in nearby mitsukoshi building, $1 for 4 hrs w/ validation. for kimukatsu there's a private lot next door ($5 i think but don't quote me), a metered lot off kuhio on makai side just ewa of lewers, or can park in royal hawn garage and get dessert at royal hawn shopping ctr afterward to validate.@Annoddah_Dave 

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