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A hand picks up a piece of fried pork with chopsticks.
Tonkatsu, with pork tenderloin, at Konban.

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A New Restaurant With Expertly Fried Japanese Katsu

Konban, a Japanese restaurant from South Korea, serves the area’s best tonkatsu

In the last year, restaurants from Seoul have shown up in Manhattan one by one. Their owners, who sometimes relocate overseas for the openings, bring specialties with them: sizzling platters of bulgogi, fried rice in instant noodle cups, and deep bowls of dweji gomtang, a Korean soup made with pork broth and rice. How about Japanese katsu?

Konban, a Japanese restaurant based in Seoul, opened in Manhattan at the end of the year. You’d be forgiven if you missed it: It’s located down a set of stairs at the end of an alleyway in Chelsea (311 W. 17th Street, near Eighth Avenue).

The restaurant, which has three locations overseas, is a one-dish wonder: It specializes in tonkatsu, fried pork cutlets that are marinated, then dried, then breaded, then deep-fried. Each one takes over two days to prepare, then cooks in as little as three minutes.

Japanese tonkatsu is ubiquitous in South Korea, to the point that it has its own regional preparation. The dish, called donkkaseu, is made with pork cutlets that are flattened into regulation frisbee-sized discs. They differ from the Japanese version in the way they’re served — with a fork and knife, rather than sliced into pieces, and smothered in a sweet sauce that softens the crust.

Konban is from Seoul, but it serves tonkatsu in the Japanese style. Its pork cutlets are thicker, and they’re cut into neat pieces that are still millennial pink in the center when they arrive at your table. The sauce comes on the side for dipping, not pooled over the top.

The restaurant serves tonkatsu made with tenderloin and loin ($14 to $16). If you, too, identify as a katsu enthusiast, you know the best cutlets are fried for just a few minutes — long enough to turn them gold and crunchy, but not so long that they dry out. They should crunch when pierced by your incisors, then kick your molars into gear.

This katsu checks all the boxes. The tenderloin, cut from the backbone of the pig, is tender and lean, while the loin is a little meatier, thanks to the strip of fat that runs down one side. I might not have known the difference without the help of a server. Both of them taste similar to me — like chewy, high-quality pork.

Customers sit in a dim dining room at Konban, a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan.
Konban has around 50 seats.
The entrance to Konbar, a Japanese restaurant located below street level.
Find the restaurant down a set of stairs at the end of an alley.

One of the most interesting preparations is the menchi katsu, something like a fried hamburger. To make it, the kitchen grinds pork and chicken meat, then shapes it into a patty. It’s dunked in egg, then tossed in breadcrumbs that are imported from Korea. When it comes out of the fryer, it looks like a pile of metal shavings, after a magnet’s been dragged over them. Golden, shaggy shards shoot off in all directions.

Menchi katsu is usually made with pork or beef, but chicken is added as a chef’s trick to keep the interior moist. It works like a charm. The katsu crunches like a latke, then oozes like a croquette.

You won’t find menchi katsu on the menu in Seoul. Since opening in 2019, Konban has served tonkatsu and not much else. That changed last fall, when Konban’s owners, the chefs Hwanyeom Yoo and Jungjae Lee, brought their cutlets to Manhattan as part of a pop-up at Domodomo, another Japanese restaurant run by Korean owners. The katsu was a hit, and the two restaurants teamed up.

One katsu option, with ground chicken and pork, at Konban in Manhattan.
The menchi katsu is one of several preparations available at Konban.

Brian Kim and Jae Park, the owners of Domodomo, run the Konban here. But instead of opening a one-dish shop, as others have done with pork soup and birria de res, they turned Konban into an izakaya. The menu has sushi, sashimi, fried chicken, and lots of booze.

Of the additions, my favorite is the hand-pulled noodles. Twice a week, the chefs convene in the kitchen and make enough noodles to last three days. They’re stretched out by hand and then briefly boiled, before ending up in broths with honeycomb tripe and short ribs, or as the base for an unusual preparation of mazemen noodles, made with almond butter.

Those dishes and others ended up on the menu because the team wasn’t sure if the katsu would be enough of a draw on its own. “Restaurants in Seoul are very specialized,” says Debbie Kim, a third partner. “That doesn’t work as well here.”

Maybe they’re onto something. Konban is booked out for the next three weeks, after all.

Konban is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

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