Monday, September 13, 2010

The Pigs' Feet of Kyushu Cuisine Invigorates Taste Buds—and Skin

If you've been to either of the previous JapanTown festivals, one booth that might have stuck out in your memory might have been Hakata Tonton's, manned by the chef wearing the pig mask, Koji Hagihara. Hakata Tonton, a cozy 40-seat restaurant in the West Village, serves authentic soul food from Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Their menu lists many dishes that may seem strange to those familiar with commonplace Japanese fare, but don't be wary; every plate of savory new flavors is bound to make you search for where all the Kyushu soul food is in New York after your experience.

Kyushu's specialties are pork and cod roe (mentaiko), and Hakata Tonton is specifically devoted to tonsoku, or pigs' feet. The feet is usually the part of the pig that no one in the U.S. eats, but in Kyushu, they are a staple. Tonsoku is not very meaty but is packed with collagen, a type of protein that is essentially the "glue" that holds the body together. Used in cosmetic industry, collagen maintains the skin's elasticity, helping to keep wrinkles at bay, which means you actually look better eating tonsoku (or so Hakata Tonton says). And because tonsoku doesn't have a lot of meat, it doesn't have a lot of fat either. Nearly every dish of of this restaurant, whether traditional or fusion, incorporates tonsoku. There's tonsoku homemade gyoza, tonkosu soup, teriyaki tonsoku, tonsoku croquette, tonsoku hot pot, and tonsoku marinated in ponzu sauce. They call this "collagen cuisine."

Curious about this health-giving tonsoku, the JapanTown Team paid a visit and ordered the Tonsoku Mentaiko, Miso Pork, and Koji's Special Crispy Chicken Wings. The Tonsoku Mentaiko, a straightforward introduction for tonsoku newcomers, was a salad-like bowl of shredded tonsoku with spicy mentaiko, scallions, and onions mixed in throughout. The taste of tonsoku is pork, but with different texture that we can only describe as "fibrous." It's chewy, basically. The Miso Pork came in grilled squares marinated in a thick sauce of miso and yuzu chili. Tender, chewy, and containing hidden juice pockets that absorb the miso flavor that squirt out with each bite, the Miso Pork was our favorite, hands down. The Chicken Wings had a thinly fried crust that crumbled easily to expose the juicy chicken within.

For dessert, we tried the Green Tea Tofu and the Fukuoka Mochi Cake. Swimming in a green tea soup, the Green Tea Tofu tasted refreshingly, bitterly clean. The Fukuoka Mochi Cake is a warabi mochi made with red bean and dipped in kinkako powder. Perhaps the most memorable moment of our time at Hakata Tonton was when the waitress ran out after us as we were leaving to give us some after-dinner mints from a pink pig Pez dispenser! That was a very cute touch. We thought the service overall was attentive and quite friendly.

While there are dishes that were much larger, the dishes we ordered were not large portions. Rather than being stomach-filling foods, these dishes were more for the taste buds. The food is meant to be slowly eaten and each bite is meant to be savored. The experience is an exploration of taste, and you are meant to take your time to tread the path before you.

We suggest you make reservations before you go, because the restaurant is packed every night. Apparently, Hakata Tonton has had success spreading the word about tonsoku and Kyushu soul food!

Tonsoku Mentaiko
Miso Pork covered with miso and Yuzusco sauce

Miso Pork covered with miso and Yuzusco sauce
Koji's Special Crispy Chicken Wings
Fukuoka Mochi Cake
Green Tea Tofu

Here are some shots of the restaurant:

Hakata Tonton were a hit at the last two festivals. Be sure to try their yummy tonsoku pork at the Soul Food Festival on September 26th!

Hakata Tonton
61 Grove Street
New York, NY 10014
(between Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue)