Whether it’s German schnitzel, Mexican milanesa, or Italian parmigiana, many of the world’s culinary traditions incorporate a dish made of thinly cut meat that is breaded and then fried to yield a contrast between a crunchy crust on the outside and tender meat on the inside. Japan is no different with its katsu, usually made with panko bread crumbs encasing a flat piece of pork or chicken. In the food court at H Mart in the Mesa Asian District, Maisen Katsu celebrates katsu by serving hearty platters of crisp, breaded meat, as well as appetizers, sides, and noodles.
Maisen Katsu’s location within H Mart puts it across the street from the Sycamore/Main light rail station with bike racks found near the grocery’s west entrance. Maisen Katsu is found in the back of the shared dining area, on the right if entering, next to the Snow Time frozen dessert shop. The concise menu is displayed over the counter with photographs and descriptions of the dishes available, and customers are informed when their orders are ready via the same automated public address system used by almost all of the booths in the food court.
Among the all-Korean lineup within the food court, Maisen Katsu is the operation that most obviously bridges the gap between Korean and Japanese foods, serving katsu with sides like rice, coleslaw, miso soup, and a little bit of banchan in the form of cold, pickled radish. Even before katsu, most appetizers are familiar favorites from many Japanese-American menus: meat-filled gyoza, small vegetable egg rolls, agedashi tofu, seaweed salad, and edamame. The post-war Korean enthusiasm for cheese, however, appears in the form of fried mozzarella balls.
Katsu, the booth’s signature dish, can be fashioned from either chicken breast or pork tenderloin with either meat coated in panko bread crumbs prior to being fried. The difference in taste between the two protein sources is subtle due to the “other white meat” effect of the particular cuts of meat involved; however, the pork is pounded much flatter, yielding a distinction in shape and texture that is particularly evident in the King Pork katsu entree in which a massive plate of skinny pork is topped with a sauce that has a slight tomato tang and plenty of onions.
Either type of katsu is available unadorned with any sauce at all, and another choice is to top the meat with a ruddy Japanese-style curry that has a mild spice level but is also replete with onions. Perhaps the most intriguing option is the cheese katsu. In this case, the breaded meat is prepared with the same sauce as the King Pork katsu and then topped with a layer of shredded mozzarella. The trick to enjoying this dish is to stir the cheese into the sauce before beginning to eat. The cheese then melts, producing something not too far from chicken parmigiana.
If katsu is the main attraction on this menu, the co-star is Japanese noodle soups. There are four varieties of ramen available, all with a pork base but with different topping and flavors. Tonkotsu and yashai bowls both feature a milky, almost white broth while miso has the familiar taste of fermented soybean paste, and tantanmen adds a note of spice. All bowls of ramen come with slices of pork chasu, a boiled egg, slivers of seaweed, and some vegetables in the soup. The one meatless dish is a bowl of cold soba noodles served with vegetables in broth.
An additional choice is udon, thick wheat noodles in a soy-based broth with a choice of either fish cakes or tempura shrimp. For anyone torn between the noodle and the katsu halves of the menu, there is also the choice of a combination of katsu with udon. A cutlet of either meat is paired with a smaller bowl of noodles, as well as the usual katsu sides. Finally, for those who wish to enjoy the katsu in a lighter format without the added carbohydrates of either rice or pasta, a simple katsu salad is a plate full of greens topped with a crisp cutlet of pork or poultry.
Because Maisen Katsu operates within the confines of the food court, its menu is compact and focused. Drinks are limited to a few bottled waters, teas, and sodas. There is no dessert on the menu, but customers can simply walk one stall over for something cool and sweet at Snow Time, or they can find pastry at Paris Baguette by the front of the food court. Pounding meat into flat cutlets, coating it with bread crumbs, and frying it is hardly unique to Japan or Korea, but Maisen Katsu shows how the practice can thrive within the food traditions of both nations.
1919 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201