ADDRESS: 255 Beach Walk, Honolulu, HI 96815
When I was younger, one of the dishes that my dad liked to cook for dinner was breaded pork tenderloins. Coated with panko bread crumbs, salt, and pepper, the pork was then pan-fried to achieve that nice golden-brown color. My brother and I would occasionally help our dad out in the kitchen to make this, and I always remember it being a fun experience. When I’ve made the breaded pork tenderloins myself, it brings me back to those days in my parents’ kitchen.
So, it was this very appreciation for breaded pork that led me to discover Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin when researching restaurants for my family’s Hawaii trip. The restaurant, whose original location in Tokyo was established back in 1927, has been specializing in tonkatsu (Japanese deep-fried pork cutlets) for three generations. Local diners had nothing but great things to say about the restaurant and, to our surprise, the restaurant was located on the same block as our hotel. It was almost like trying out this restaurant while we were on Oahu was just meant to be.
Nestled away between resorts and other small restaurants or shops, Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin has a very unassuming storefront, with a few Japanese-style windows and a doormat in front of the entrance. The remarkable thing, however, was that once you stepped inside the restaurant, it truly felt like you were transported away from the sandy beaches and tropical climate of Hawaii. I could have looked outside the windows and expected to the street side of a Tokyo neighborhood. The Japanese-style décor, ample ambient lighting, and restaurant staff conversing in Japanese really made it an immersive experience that I had a deep appreciation for.
It was certainly a very small dining space, as it could only accommodate about 35 people at a time. If the place started to get busy (like it did as we were leaving from dinner), it would be packed in no time, with people waiting outside for a table. To give you an idea of how small the restaurant is, the path to get to the back of the restaurant was only wide enough for one person to get by all the tables. I’m sure that space is a premium in Honolulu, especially with a location that is only a five minute walk from Waikiki Beach.
Because I wasn’t sure how popular this place was on average, I placed a reservation with the restaurant a few weeks in advance. It turned out to be pretty quiet on a Wednesday evening; when we got to the place, there were still a handful of four-person tables still available. Fast forward about 1.5 hours later when we left though, and there was a small crowd waiting outside to get seated. The manager at the host stand took us over to our table in the back, tucked away from the bustle of people going to and from the restaurant. There was also a bar table closer to the front on the right side, where you could sit facing the chefs and watch them as they work their magic to transform the pork cutlets into golden-brown strips of deliciousness.
When looking at the menu, you can clearly see that the star of the show is the pork katsu, no question. Large pictures showed the different types of pork katsu the restaurant offered, separated by weight of the meat. In addition to the pork katsu, you could also choose chicken, seafood, or vegetables to be your primary ingredient, if you were in the mood for something different. One particular item that Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin offered was their Kurobuta pork katsu, a hearty thick-cut 7 oz. piece of pork fried up to perfection. Because Kurobuta pork is considered some of the highest quality pork in the world (think of it like the pork equivalent of Kobe beef), the restaurant would only serve 30 portions of this per day.
My brother always prefers to sample the best that a restaurant has to offer, and it was pretty clear that the Kurobuta pork katsu had his name on it. For me, it was going to be the pork tenderloin katsu-don: a bowl of rice topped with pork katsu, caramelized onions, sweet & savory tonkatsu (Japanese BBQ) sauce, and an over-easy egg. I had come across a picture of it on Yelp earlier that day and it was just calling my name for some reason. My mom went with the regular pork katsu and my dad ordered the same thing I did. We also decided to start things off with an appetizer of fried oysters.
One interesting thing that we found out after ordering the food was that you get to “make” your own tonkatsu sauce. The waitstaff would bring over a small bowl of sesame seeds along with a pestle, letting you freshly grind the seeds to add into a sauce base already provided at the table. There is also a small jar of mustard if you want to add a bit of a kick, but my family was good with just the sauce and sesame seeds by themselves. Something else that I also noticed was that waitstaff aren’t assigned to specific tables. I was accustomed to this in some Chinese restaurants, where you usually flagged down the nearest waiter or waitress to order food or get the bill. I wasn’t aware this was also the case with some Japanese restaurants as well.
The fried oysters arrived first and we quickly dug in. Served with some shredded cabbage, a cold noodle salad, and some tartar sauce, the fried oysters were tender in the middle but crisp on the outside. Add in some of the tartar sauce and it was just a great combo of savory flavors to start off the meal. Fast forward another fifteen minutes or so, and our katsu dishes arrived. The pork katsu was served on a small half-circle wire rack, in order to prevent one side from getting soggy. Opposite that was a mound of shredded cabbage and a slice of lemon; it was a simple, but elegant presentation.
For my pork katsu-don, it looked just like the pictures I had seen: a hearty bowl packed with rich, savory, and delicious flavors. Once I cut into the over-easy egg, the yolk started to run down deeper into the bowl, and I did my best to mix everything up. It certainly wasn’t an easy task with so many ingredients already packed into the bowl! I managed to pull free one of the pork katsu strips to give it a try. Some tonkatsu sauce had already soaked into the breading, but that gave it a great sweet & savory flavor in addition to the slight sweetness from the pork. The katsu was also really moist inside, cooked pretty much just right. Combine that with the onions, egg, and some rice for a bite that will make your stomach feel happy.
My brother was gracious enough to let me try a slice of his Kurobuta pork katsu and man, let me tell you, that was phenomenal. The half-inch thick slice of pork had a thin coating of the panko breadcrumbs on the outside and fried to a perfect golden-brown color. The meat was moist and had a natural sweetness to it that I didn’t need to use any tonkatsu sauce. One of the bites I took must have had a little extra fat in the meat, and it practically melted in my mouth. That Kurobuta pork katsu does run pretty steep, sitting at a hefty $36, but I’d say it’s worth it, every penny, even to try just once.
Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin took a dish that I grew up eating and raised it to the next level. Between the perfectly crispy pork katsu and the katsu-don bowl jam-packed with flavor, this restaurant is surely a place not to be missed while you’re in the area. This location is also the only one in the United States, which makes it even more of a treat to dine at. Even with so many restaurant options in Honolulu that I still want to try, I think that Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin is definitely a “must-return” spot the next time I find myself on the island.
Let’s now take a look at the Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin Dish Spotlight. Asterisks (*) below mark my recommended dishes.
And finally, here are my rankings for Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin:
Food: 4.75 / 5
I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but the pork katsu was absolutely delicious. Crispy on the outside, yet moist on the inside, the restaurant was able to walk that fine line when deep-frying the pork. You could definitely taste the freshness and quality in their food.
Atmosphere: 5 / 5
The overall décor of the restaurant certainly made me feel like I was dining right in the heart of Japan. Even though the tables were a little cramped together, I didn’t mind too much. A lot of the “hole-in-the-wall” types of restaurants are set up that way, and I thought it added to the experience.
Service: 4 / 5
The waitstaff floated around among the tables, and several different people helped us out during our meal. They were all very courteous and welcoming, always making sure that we had refills for our drinks.
Price: 4.25 / 5
With a prime location five minutes away from the beach and the high quality ingredients that they use for their food, I’m not as surprised that all of the pork katsu dishes clock in at over $20. In my opinion though, the price is absolutely worth it.