KOBUTA & OOKAMI on Capitol Hill is a katsu-and-sake joint — you won’t find a long list of appetizers here (or any list of appetizers, actually), just an array of presentations of katsu, the breaded-and-fried meat-treat of 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 metric ton of restaurant experience — travel a lot and decided to bring Seattle a category of Japanese food it notably lacked.
They loved the supreme crispiness surrounding divine meatiness they encountered at the best back-alley katsu places in Japan — where, as with ramen, katsu is taken to the level of a comfort-food art form. They also loved the hanging-out-and-drinking casual atmosphere of these places found, say, under the Tokyo train tracks.
On behalf of Seattle, may I say to them: thank you very, very much. Following are nine particular things to love about Kobuta & Ookami, plus one problem.
1. THE SUPREME CRISPINESS: To say Kobuta & Ookami “just” makes katsu does the situation a grave disservice, as this katsu is everything. Here you’ll have an experience in unparalleled crispiness, a momentary trip to heaven in deep-golden-brown-fried form. The coating on the pork — or the chicken, or the shrimp, or the mozzarella wrapped in pork (yes!), etc. — veritably bristles with crispiness, with countless miniature crags and crevasses providing practically endless surface area upon which our friend hot oil works its magic. Chef Don Tandavanitj disclosed via phone 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 as well.”
Other local panko-coated efforts pale, figuratively and literally, in comparison. The hot crunch when you bite into this katsu … Clearly, I could go on, but words sometimes seem like a particularly stupid way to deal with simply superlative food — eating is what is good for that.
2. THE INCREDIBLE PORK: Kobuta & Ookami’s chicken — free-range, all natural, celebrated Jidori, aka the Kobe beef of the bird world — is very, very good, fully worthy of encasement in the crust of rich gold. So are the big shrimp, their oceanic freshness such a fine contrast to the crunchiness, the tails most definitely crisped enough to easily eat. I’d very much like to emote about the ume-shiso — pickled plum paste and shiso leaves wrapped in thinly sliced chicken — but they have been consistently out of it. And we’ll deal with the mozzarella option shortly.
So: the pork. Five different kinds are available, and even the lower-rung rosu — pork loin with “more fat” — rates love-me-tender, the antithesis of dry and replete with fresh pork flavor. My particular cutlet shaded beautifully from light meat on one side to darker on the other. Upgrade to kurobuta — aka the wagyu of pork — for lip-slicking, luxurious marbling of fat, also ideally cooked and magnificent with the make-you-sneeze house mustard (more on that in a minute). Upgrade again to raised-in-Spain-on-a-diet-of-acorns Iberico for an outstandingly soft, moist, almost hammy, nearly gamey, faintly nutty taste-and-texture sensation. Or get the least expensive menchi, a minced-pork-and-onion patty that’s also socks-knocking-off excellent, with a big grind, sweetness from the onion and — well, just order one of these from the “ADD ON SIDE” part of the menu for the table, then fight over it. (Get yourself a shrimp while you’re at it.)
The succulence of all the pork at Kobuta & Ookami (save the hire, a tenderloin cutlet I’ve yet to try because it says “lean” on the menu, so why?) makes a miraculous match for the preternaturally crispy coating. Despite (and also because of) my recent hot dog taste test, allow me to say that we all should eat meat rarely, and when we do, we should really, truly enjoy it. This is a place for that.
3. AN ABSURDLY MARVELOUS VERSION OF MOZZARELLA STICKS: Kobuta & Ookami makes mozzarella wrapped in a thin slice of pork tenderloin that is miracle-breaded and fried, meaning outer crunch, then cheese stretching all gooey, then the flavor of pork like the moment when the strings first come in at the symphony. The presentation is tantalizingly open-topped, like a pork-lined, panko-hulled cheese boat. The mozzarella is not on the add-ons menu, but you can and should get it a la carte to share, because a full order of this for one person may represent actual cheesy-goodness overload.
4. SO MANY OPTIONS: All the different proteins, the longed-for ume-shiso and the mozzarella are available in seven different formats at Kobuta & Ookami. Maybe start with plain katsu ($16-$27, sides included) to get a feel for its genius. But, then, the katsudon ($16-$27) — your choice of wonderfulness on a bed of rice with masterful “savory sauce,” soft-cooked egg, onion and a sprinkling of seaweed richness — is its own kind of perfection. And chef Tandavanitj’s curry ($16-$27) is outstanding: oniony, black peppery, tomatoey, throat-coating, made with dark chocolate yet tangy-tasting, showing the slightest sheen of surface grease. 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 sweetish tomato sauce — think wildly elevated grade-school lunch — under a serious snowdrift of grated Parmesan. There’s much more to explore, but onward to …
5. TWO OF THE WORLD’S BEST SAUCES: On the table are two pitchers. One is chef Tandavanitj’s housemade tonkatsu sauce, for dipping your pork cutlet slices/your life into. Forget every store-bought version: This is deeply plummy, pleasantly sour, possibly citrusy, with a slight spicy bite. Badgered for details, Tandavanitj divulged that it’s made with plums, dates, onions, apple, bay leaf and more. Then there’s his own sesame dressing for the fluffy heap of cabbage that comes with most orders: richer by a mile than others of its ilk, possessed of a nuanced sweetness, toasty, marvelous. Roasted sesame seeds get ground for it (and you can grind more with a little pestle that also comes with most orders) — beyond that, “We put everything together ourselves,” he noted. “That’s all I can say!” Very well — please pass both pitchers for pouring directly into 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!” one server said, and a little goes all the way to heaven, hell and back. It’s made with S&B Japanese mustard powder along with whole-grain mustard, plus other ingredients chef Tandavanitj declined to specify. If you love mustard, it is a must-try, and we may hope for/badger him to bottle this, along with his two world’s best sauces. And his curry.
7. THE GIGANTIC COLD BEERS AND TONS OF SAKE: Fried food (not to mention a walloping mustard) demands cold beer, and Kobuta & Ookami offers Sapporo in an appropriately large-format (and fun) 32-ounce glass tankard ($14, worth it). There’s also a selection of sake so large — 24-plus kinds — it’s hard to choose, and one server looked stricken when asked for a recommendation. Asked who the house expert is, chef Tandavanitj said, “We just love sake, so we drink a lot.” For those in doubt, there’s a sampler of three ($16), set up in a wooden rack on a tray etched with the wolf-and-pig emblem of the place — mine included a gentle junmai with an echo of plum: Miyasaka Yawaraka “Sake Matinee,” noted to be “ideal for lunchtime.” Connoisseurs/big spenders can get into the likes of Heavensake by Dassai, “like walking into a flower shop” for $126 a bottle.
8. THE DESSERTS: The delicately flavored, not-too-sweet sweets at Kobuta & Ookami come from Phinney Ridge treasure Tokara Japanese Confectionery, and they’re texture-eaters’ dreams, bouncy with mochi and/or filled with pastes, looking like jelly-rainbow flowers, closed-up sea anemones or triangular pennants ($6.50 each).
9. THE VERY CHILL ATMOSPHERE: Kobuta & Ookami’s smallish room feels pleasantly contemporary with wood elements giving depth to the ceiling, a half-dozen kitchen bar seats and nine tables, a corner stocked promisingly with sake bottles. There’s nothing surprising about the space except how comfortable it feels. Music plays at a humane volume, cycling through mellow pop covers to Earth, Wind & Fire. Families dine — grandparents, parents, a little kid wearing a hat with long fuzzy ears — and friends gather, low-pressure dates happen. Service is friendly. It’s just a nice place to be.
AND THE ONE PROBLEM: Kobuta & Ookami is so popular with those who know and love it that getting in is already tough. After this review, that will be even more the case. I’m sorry! I’ve had luck showing up before they open at 5 p.m. daily to line up for an early supper (then eating my leftovers later). Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more — if you gather five pork-loving friends, they will thank you profusely. And, unlike many local restaurants at the moment, Kobuta & Ookami is open for lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (noon to 3 on Sundays) — a later one might be most viable, and then you may as well have a sake matinee and call it a happy day.