- Name: Saku
- Locations: 1773 Robson St. and 548 W. Broadway, Vancouver
- Phone: 778-379-5872 (for both locations)
- Website: sakuvancouver.com
- Cuisine: Tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlets)
- Rating System: Cheap Eats
- Name: Kingyo Izakaya
- Location: 871 Denman St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-608-1677
- Website: kingyo-izakaya.ca
- Cuisine: Japanese Izakaya
- Rating System: Cheap Eats
I waited more than a year for the lines to die down outside Saku, a West End Japanese restaurant that specializes in tonkatsu set meals – deep-fried, panko-breaded pork cutlets with all-you-can-eat rice, shredded cabbage and pork-miso soup.
The crowds didn’t get any smaller, even after a second, larger location opened on West Broadway in June.
I had my doubts.
But if The New Yorker can write a 1,300-word essay on Popeye’s chicken sandwich, I thought there must be at least a short story to be told about Vancouver’s own deep-fried phenomenon.
Here is the quick take-away after I wasted 45 minutes waiting outside on a cold September evening: These over-fried slabs of dry, bland loin are grossly overrated and people who succumb to the herd mentality are, for the most part, fools.
I do appreciate Saku’s niche business model. There is a long tradition of Japanese restaurants specializing in a signature dish. But if you’re going to do one thing, you had better do it really well. These tonkatsu are neither cheap ($17 for the loin, $18 for the filet) nor delicious.
The pork that Saku uses, a premium Berkshire hybrid from Alberta, is tasteless. I’ve had juicier pork from Safeway. The lack of flavour could be attributed to the fact that loins are completely trimmed of fat (the thin filets are even drier) and neither is well seasoned.
But the main culprit is the fryer. The oil isn’t old or off, but near the end of the night it tastes tired. The dark-brown cutlets have obviously been submerged in those boiling vats too long. Also, the cutlets are not pounded flat so they cook unevenly.
The house-made panko, made with locally-baked white bread, is light and spiky. And although this crunchy crust is one of Saku’s most popular calling cards, it also traps the oil in all its nooks and crags, making the exterior extremely greasy.
The melted cheese katsu (or cutlet) is popular on social media. Don’t bother. The mozzarella is allegedly aged, but tastes as dull as a Kraft slice.
The set is nicely presented on a wooden tray surrounded by condiments – hot mustard, tangy pickles, lemon wedges and a lemon-zest salt potent with palate-popping umami. Toasted sesame seeds come in a small mortar with a pestle. You grind the seeds to an aromatic powder, then mix it with a Worcestershire-based tonkatsu sauce and drizzle it over the meat.
At the very least, you won’t get bored with all prep work and mixing-and-matching.
The all-you-can-eat components are nothing to get excited about. The rice is barely warm and clumpy. The tonjiru broth is watery. And the salad is plain, uncooked, roughly chopped cabbage. Two communal salad dressings are set on every table. One is dark ponzu lacking in tang, the other a sweet sesame that separates, with all the balancing mustard seed settling at the bottom. You have to place your fingers over the split metal spout to shake it, which is awfully unhygienic. (One of the owners told me they have better bottles at the new location.)
Even with unlimited portions, the restaurant must be making a killing on these side dishes.
Saku does offer an excellent deal on the one wine it lists – Poplar Grove pinot gris for $7 a glass. There is also a plum wine, choya umeshu, served in a gold-rimmed glass with a cube of ice.
The aesthetics are pleasant. It’s a stylish hole-in-the-wall appointed in pale wood, bright lights and clean lines. The service is warm and friendly even when dealing with impatient customers who might sign up outside and be present when their name is called. They won’t take phone numbers and text you when your table is ready, but they will take your order just before you are seated.
Still, I don’t understand the appeal. Especially not when there is a far superior tonkatsu being served at Kingyo Izakaya, located around the corner, only a few blocks down on Denman Street.
Granted, Kingyo only serves its tonkatsu set at lunch. And the restaurant also gets very busy, although it does take reservations.
And the pork? Oh, my gosh. There is no comparison. It’s so much more juicy, fatty and well seasoned. The breading is not as crunchy, but it’s golden and less greasy. The cabbage is more finely shredded and plentiful enough without refills. The rice is fluffy. The sesame dressing is perfectly balanced. The miso soup has depth and big slivers of daikon and mushroom.
The best part? It’s almost the exact same price – $16.80 for a loin.