KOBUTA & OOKAMI on Capitol Hill is a joint of katsu and sake – you won’t find a long list of appetizers here (or any list of appetizers, for that matter), just an array of presentations of katsu, the breaded, fried meat of the Japan. Owners Don Tandavanitj (the chef), Dee Tandavanitj, Dew Tandavanitj, Sue Phuksopha and Ping Vimonaroon – three siblings, one of their longtime girlfriends and another beloved friend, with a combined ton of experience in catering – travel a lot and decided to bring Seattle a category of Japanese food that it notably lacked.
They loved the supreme crispness surrounding the divine meat they encountered at the best alley katsu spots in Japan – where, as with ramen, katsu is taken to the level of an art form of comfort food . They also loved the laid-back atmosphere of these places found, for example, under Tokyo’s train tracks.
On behalf of Seattle, may I say to them: Thank you very, very much. Here are nine particular things to love about Kobuta & Ookami, plus one issue.
1. THE ULTIMATE CRUNCHY: To say that Kobuta & Ookami “just” does the katsu a disservice to the situation, because that katsu is everything. Here you will experience an unparalleled crispy experience, a momentary trip to paradise in a golden brown fried form. The pork wrap – or chicken, or shrimp, or mozzarella wrapped in pork (yes!), etc. works its magic. Chief Don Tandavanitj communicated by telephone that they use nama panko imported from Tokyo – made fresh, not the typical dried, with a larger crumb providing a lighter, more delicate texture – and also allowed“We also use special types of oil to cook our katsu.”
Other panko-covered local efforts pale, figuratively and literally, in comparison. The hot crunch when biting into that katsu… Clearly, I could go on, but words sometimes seem like a particularly dumb way of dealing with merely superlative food – eating is what’s good for it.
2. THE INCREDIBLE PORK: Chicken from Kobuta & Ookami — free-range, all-natural, celebrated Jidori, aka Kobe Beef from Bird World – is very, very good, fully worthy of being encased in the rich golden crust. The same goes for the large prawns, their oceanic freshness contrasts so well with the crunchiness, the tails certainly crispy enough to eat easily. I’d love to talk about ume-shiso – pickled plum paste and shiso leaves wrapped in thinly sliced chicken – but they’ve always been missing. And we’ll cover the mozzarella option shortly.
So: pork. Five different types are available, and even the lower-ranked rosu – pork loin with “more fat” – rates love-me-tender, the antithesis of dry and bursting with fresh pork flavor. My particular chop is beautifully shaded from light meat on one side to darker on the other. Switch to kurobuta – aka pork wagyu – for a luxurious, lip-slick marbling of fat, also ideally cooked and gorgeous with homemade sneeze mustard (more on that in a minute). Switch again to Iberico raised in Spain on an acorn diet for an exceptionally smooth, moist, almost hammy, almost gamey and slightly nutty taste and texture sensation. Or get the cheapest menchi, a minced pork and onion patty that’s also great for socks, with a big grind, onion sweetness, and – well, order one in the “ADD ON THE SIDE” part of the table menu, then fight for it. (Get a shrimp while you’re at it.)
The succulence of all the pork at Kobuta & Ookami (except the rental, tenderloin cutlet which I haven’t tried yet because it says “lean” on the menu, so why?) Makes a miraculous match for the coating supernatural crisp. Despite (and also because of) my recent hot dog taste test, let me say that we should all rarely eat meat, and when we do, we should really, really enjoy it. This is a place for that.
3. AN ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL VERSION OF MOZZARELLA STICKS: Kobuta & Ookami makes mozzarella wrapped in a thin slice of pork tenderloin that is miraculously breaded and fried, which means outward crunch, then cheese that stretches all gooey, then the flavor of pork like when the strings enter the symphony for the first time. The presentation is mouth-wateringly open-air, like a panko-shelled, pork-lined cheese boat. Mozzarella isn’t on the add-ons menu, but you can and should get it a la carte to share, as a full order for one person can be a veritable overload of cheesy goodness.
4. SO MANY OPTIONS: All the different proteins, the long-awaited ume-shiso and mozzarella are available in seven different formats at Kobuta & Ookami. Maybe start with a regular katsu ($16-$27 including trimmings) to get a sense of its genius. But then the katsudon ($16-$27)—your choice of wonders on a bed of rice with a masterful “savory sauce,” a boiled egg, onions, and a dash of seaweed richness—is its own type of perfection. And Chef Tandavanitj’s curry ($16-$27) is exceptional: onion, black pepper, tomato, throat coating, made with dark chocolate but tangy in taste, showing the slightest burst of fat on the surface. Or, for those who adore the Japanese American comfort food sphere, a “TOMATO & CHEESE” option offers your choice of breaded and fried excellence with a sweet tomato sauce – think a wildly high grade school lunch – under a serious snowdrift of grated parmesan. There’s a lot more to explore, but onward to…
5. TWO OF THE BEST SAUCES IN THE WORLD: On the table are two pitchers. One is Chef Tandavanitj’s homemade tonkatsu sauce, to dip your pork chop slices into your life. Forget all the store-bought versions: it’s deeply plummy, pleasantly sour, possibly lemony, with a slight hint of spice. Harassed for details, Tandavanitj revealed that it was made with plums, dates, onions, apples, bay leaves and more. Then there’s its own sesame dressing for the chewy pile of cabbage that accompanies most orders: richer by a mile than others of its ilk, possessing a nuanced, toasty, wonderful sweetness. The toasted sesame seeds are ground (and you can grind more with a small pestle that also comes with most orders) — beyond that, “we put everything together ourselves,” he noted. “That’s all I can say!” Alright – please pass both pitchers to pour straight into your mouth.
6. AN INCREDIBLY COMPLEX MUSTARD: The unusually dark mustard color of this smear on Kobuta & Ookami’s plates functions as both a warning and a siren song. “Be careful!” a waiter said, and a little goes to heaven, to hell and back. It’s made with S&B Japanese mustard powder as well as whole-grain mustard, along with other ingredients that chef Tandavanitj declined to specify. If you love mustard, this is a must, and we can hope he bottles it, along with his two best sauces in the world. And his curry.
7. GIGANTIC COLD BEERS AND TONS OF SAKE: Fried foods (not to mention a mustard to die for) call for cold beer, and Kobuta & Ookami offers Sapporo in a suitably (and fun) 32-ounce glass stein ($14, worth it). There’s also such a large selection of sake – over 24 kinds – that it’s hard to choose, and one waiter seemed struck when asked for a recommendation. When asked who the house expert is, Chef Tandavanitj replied, “We love sake, so we drink a lot.” For those in doubt, there’s a sample of three ($16), set in a wooden stand on a tray engraved with the place’s wolf and pig emblem – mine included a sweet junmai with an echo plum: Miyasaka Yawaraka “Sake Matinee”, noted as “ideal for lunch”. Connoisseurs/big spenders can get into tastes like Dassai’s Heavensake, “like walking into a flower shop” for $126 a bottle.
8. DESSERTS: The delicately flavored and not too sweet Kobuta & Ookami treats come from Treasure of Phinney Ridge Japanese Confectionery Tokaraand they are texture eaters dreams, bouncy with mochi and/or filled with pasta, resembling jelly rainbow flowers, closed sea anemones or triangular pennants ($6.50 each).
9. THE VERY CHILL ATMOSPHERE: Kobuta & Ookami’s small room is pleasantly contemporary with wooden features giving depth to the ceiling, half a dozen kitchen bar seats and nine tables, a nook filled with sake bottles. There’s nothing surprising about the space except how comfortable it is. The music plays at a human volume, moving from soft pop covers to Earth, Wind & Fire. Families dine – grandparents, parents, a small child wearing a hat with long fuzzy ears – and friends gather, low-pressure dates happen. The service is friendly. It’s just a nice place.
AND THE ONLY PROBLEM: Kobuta & Ookami is so popular with those who know and love it that it’s already hard to get into. After this review, it will be even more the case. I am sorry! I was lucky to show up before they opened at 5pm everyday to line up for an early supper (and then eat my leftovers later). Reservations are accepted for groups of six or more – if you get five pork-loving friends together, they’ll thank you profusely. And, unlike many local restaurants right now, Kobuta & Ookami is open for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays) – a later one might be the most viable, and then you might as well have a morning of sake and call it a happy day.