How do you make hot breaded pork stand out in a sea of others who’ve come and planted their flags before you?
As in all cool things – do it by thinking it through and by respecting the details.
I’m talking about the subject of today’s capsule review: Ginza Bairin.
Now, let me be transparent wit’ you (because I’m a responsible “food blogger” that way. THAT’S how I roll. Harhar!): I was invited by their marketing team to meet the owners and taste their grub. All in the name of research, of course… hehe. Yes, I got the first class treatment here – but I always do when invited to these things, and it doesn’t necessarily mean I will be a frequent guest to an establishment either. **note: I’ve come back once since then, and things were still pretty cool to me**
Ok, now that I’ve confessed that to you – Ginza Bairin is a tonkatsu restaurant that dates back to 1927. It originated and is still located in the posh Ginza district of Tokyo (think Greenbelt Mall and multiply by 100) and has specialized in this dish and it’s variants for generations.
As of today it opens in Glorietta 2, facing Palm Drive, beside Wee Nam Kee. They’re opening another branch in this new Ayala Mall near Meriam College.
Having met the Japanese owner of the chain and had a great conversation with him, it was good to know that he was a typical Japanese dude: very thorough and meticulous – some of their best traits. That means they cared a LOT about where they sourced their pork, their eggs, breadcrumbs and other ingredients. Only the best quality they could afford. And it definitely shows.
I got to try several things: their pork cutlets are tender and perfectly fried (to me, at least) as they were crisp and practically greaseless. Two of the Japanese chefs are still in the kitchen as of this writing, so the challenge is to keep up this level of cooking when they leave.
But as I questioned at the beginning – how do you stand out when you have other katsu houses like the mighty Yabu, Saboten, and even smaller players like Tonkatsuya in the playing field? All these guys do tonkatsu quite well – to varying degrees, of course, and subjective to your tastes and experiences.
You shine with the OTHER stuff.
Take, for instance, their tonkatsu sauce. This is leagues away from the stuff that we all grew up eating – the infamous Bulldog sauce, which I find cloying and too “rough”. GB’s sauce is a proprietary recipe from the man who started the biz. Made at their home base in Japan, it’s shipped out to all GB outlets. One pour and you will spot the difference: lighter in color and viscosity, it has many flavors running through it. I tasted a bit of umeboshi – Japanese dried plum – but I can’t be certain. It certainly beats out Bulldog for me. You don’t actually NEED this sauce – actually, I like it with a squeeze of lemon and some sea salt (which they have on the table) – but it IS good, especially when paired with some hot Japanese mustard.
A must is their katsudon special (tonkatsu in a special sauce over rice, topped with an egg). The first thing you’ll notice is the beautifully orange egg and the taste of the sauce base, which is made by simmering pork for hours. It is in my book the most thoughtful version of katsudon I’ve tried here so far. Pop the egg yolk, and let it dribble over your rice .. dip a katsu slice in it and use it as a secondary sauce. Comfort and bliss in a bowl. It’s won awards in Tokyo, and if I’m not mistaken the reason why owner Scott Tan fell in love with GB in the first place.
If you’re not doing rice for sexy time purposes, they have a tonkatsu sandwich on white bread. Trust me here: it doesn’t look like much, but they did their research with the bread they use for this, and it works aces. It’s a fine sandwich, and a welcome and refreshing alternative to the big katsu sets.
The diva of the show, so to speak, is the unagi tonkatsu. At close to P800, it’s their most expensive set, and also probably their most unique. It’s unagi fried katsu style (duh.) and best eaten with ground sesame seeds with sea salt. Just a light dip will do the trick..let them sweet and salty flavors become friends in your maw. It took me by surprise how much I liked it – this, to me, is really good shit, and great for the occasional splurge.
They also have katsu curry bowls, seafood (prawns, scallops, white fish), as well as gyoza and edamame. Oh, for all you takaws out there – it’s unli rice, pickles and cabbage.
Now, let me make a brief comparison to the OTHER katsu joints that have popped up and who are doing brisk business. This is how they stack up in my eyes:
Ginza Bairin is the cool kid you like to hang out with. Likes wearing cool clothes, listens to cool music, and pays attention to the little details. GB is probably a graphic artist or an interior designer.
Tonkatsuya is the street smart guy with swag. He knows what he’s doing and wants to bring his talents to a wider audience. Krumping is his specialty. Hahaha! (Tonkatsuya is run by this Japanese fellow who’s been at it for years making the same thing. I’ve only been here twice, but his prices are unbeatable – in the 200 range – and for the price, the quality is excellent.)
Yabu is the OG of the lot. A celebrity with talent and eye candy to boot, Yabu can bring in the crowds. (Mainly because of generally excellent food, great graphics and details inside the shop, and a loud energetic buzz.)
Saboten is kind of like your steady uncle, with lots of attention to detail as well. More formal than casual, he’s a tailor who can make a mean “bespoke” suit. (I say this because their food is also excellent, with their own tricks up their sleeve like a killer snow crab croquette. Also, they have this very Zen like serenity in the room, and actually BOW to you in a deeply respectful way when they present your check and all. Obviously trained by a Japanese hospitality person, this makes Saboten quite the transporting experience. And that’s a good thing.)
And no, I wasn’t smoking anything when I wrote this, lest you think otherwise. :P
Hmm.. nothing out of the ordinary so far. I think they MIGHT have a problem if they become too popular, as the room is a bit small.
As I exited the door during my second time, at around 750pm, there was a wait outside. I know it’s not GB’s fault, but waiting outside is never good. Oh, maybe they can offer chairs to the inevitable line.
Address: G/F, Glorietta 2 (along Palm Drive)
Tel. No. +632.5537350
Hours: Sunday – Thursday 10am -11pm; Friday – Saturday 10am – MIDNIGHT, BABY!
Price: Tonkatsu regular set – P345, large set P395; Sando (sandwich) a la carte – P215, set – P325; mixed set – P425; special katsudon – P395 …. More or less you’ll spend P500 or less, which is about the going rate with the better katsu houses, with the exception of Tonkatsuya