The pork katsu sando has returned, 18 months after it first disappeared. Photo: Hugo Yu
It’s easy to miss the sign that announces the return of New York’s most impressive pork sandwich: BEST KATSU SANDO ON EARTH is handwritten above a small drawing of a ringed planet. It hangs from a horseshoe on a wall that’s mostly hidden from view by a wooden beam in the back of the Izakaya NYC on East 4th. Still, the sandwich tends to sell out. There are only 20 available each night, beginning at 6 p.m., and its fans show up early.
By 6:22 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, five had already been spoken for. The first sandwich dropped at a two-top occupied by a pair of men who regarded the imperious creation — a one-and-a-half-inch-thick pork cutlet encased in craggy panko, pressed between two slices of buttered, griddled milk bread along with a loose thatch of shredded cabbage — with reverence. After an initial inspection, the man sitting closer to the sando caught the eyes of his dining companion and offered his review: “It’s perfect.”
It really is. The sandwich returned to the small restaurant’s abbreviated list of specials (the other is a fried Wagyu beef hamburg steak sando) in June, 17 months after owner Yudai Kanayama had to scrap it from the Izakaya’s offerings because he was unable to keep up with demand. During the pandemic, when Kanayama first released his katsu composition, he would sell out all 50 sandwiches each night. Its acolytes would come in three or four nights in a row. One fan, Hiroki Abe — a private chef formerly of En Brasserie — stumbled upon the sando by chance; he returned seven more times before it disappeared from the menu months later. “My chef friends were all definitely talking about it,” he says. On the last night the sandwich was available, during a snowstorm, a friend of mine barricaded herself inside a car along with several N95s to drive to the East Village from Crown Heights for a contactless pickup, while actively infected with COVID. She thinks it relieved her symptoms.
The daily blitz was unsustainable. Unlike a standard tonkatsu, which is breaded and fried through quickly, Kanayama’s pork cutlet surrenders to a 145-degree sous-vide bath for an entire work day, until the meat is as tender as modeling clay. It’s then cloaked in a layer of panko, some of the crumbs as big as Grape Nuts, and briefly fried to a glassy crisp. Each is next doused in slow-cooked tonkatsu sauce, mellow and sweet, concentrated to a tenth its original volume after a five-hour simmer. Two slices of Takahachi Bakery milk bread are compressed onto a hot, buttered griddle, then painted with a cool mayonnaise and grainy mustard blend that rounds out the tangy edges of the vinegary tonkatsu sauce. The sando is served with cornichon and a swipe of sinus-jettisoning Japanese mustard, which Kanayama recommends employing for a dip with each bite. “The sandwich is fatty but clean,” says Justin Wu, a relatively recent convert who tried it for the first time this summer. “There’s a lot of craftsmanship.”
Kanayama has taken steps to make sure the sandwich sticks around: He now has a rotating staff of cooks who assist with the 13 hours of prep required to make each sando. For another, he has curtailed the number of available sandwiches to 160 a week; in addition to the 20 each night at 6 p.m., another 20 drop every Saturday at noon. Each one costs $23 and feeds exactly one (which I have to keep reminding my husband, no matter how persistently he asks). This time, Kanayama reports, the sando is here to stay: “It’s gonna be on the menu forever.”