Tonkatsu house Saku opens to instant popularity in Vancouver's West End

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      As the saying goes, the best-laid plans often go astray. But would it seem counterintuitive if you didn't want your restaurant became an instant success?

      When the owners of Saku had their soft opening on June 19, they had hoped to take things slow. General manager David Lim of LLH Eatery told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the West End premises that they didn't do any publicity or advertising to allow for their staff some time to ease into things.

      But within a short period of time, they were serving full houses. Word spread by mouth and social media. Diners began queuing up outside. The owners had a runaway hit on their hands.

      Although LLH Eatery runs other local restaurants, such as Asian taco shop Tako and Taishoken Ramen (both on the edge of Chinatown), Lim said their popularity took them by surprise. Mind you, the spot was primed for such a place, as the area is populated by several eateries serving Asian fried and comfort food.

      Saku
      Craig Takeuchi

      Moreover, it's difficult to remain low-key when the stylish appearance piques curiosity from passersby—especially during the busiest season in the West End for events, beachgoers, and visitors.

      The room, which seats 20 (with 10 more on the patio), features minimalist interior design by Rane Interiors, with lighting by designer Matthew McCormick. The nuanced retro décor, with touches of Japanese design influences, maintains a muted colour palette but sustains enough visual interest to remain compelling.  

      Lim explained that they wanted to create a setting accessible and appealing to local diners within which to present the popular Japanese dish of tonkatsu, or deep-fried breaded pork cutlets. Lim and the co-owners all share a love for the yoshoku-style meal, and traveled across Japan visiting restaurants that specialize in it.

      In the past, Japanese restaurants in Vancouver have typically offered a broad range of dishes on their menu, ranging from tempura to teriyaki. As Vancouverites became more familiar with Japanese cuisine, establishments began to focus on specific types of cuisine or food, such as sushi, izakayas, or ramen.

      With Saku, the owners wanted to zero in on one specific type of dish, as many eateries do in Japan.

      Tonkatsu
      Saku

      The menu, designed by chef Yusuke Matsumoto from Osaka, offers six variations of katsu sets ($15.50 to $18), all made with Canadian pork.

      Two main choices are rosu (pork loin) or hire (pork fillet) katsu.

      For something a bit different from those two options, katsu nabe features pork loin mixed with egg, onion, and mushroom, with soup base and housemade sauce. Their sauce is made with seven types of vegetables and fruits, and white sesame (which offers a lighter flavour than black sesame).

      Meanwhile, the curry for their curry katsu is made in house with a blend of 14 types of vegetables and fruits.

      A selection added to their menu after their grand opening (which was on July 23) is cheese katsu: deep-fried breaded aged mozzarella wrapped around thinly sliced pork loin.

      Vegetarians can opt for veggie katsu, with tofu replacing pork and accompanied by seasonal vegetables.

      The secret is in the panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs). Lim explains that they bake their own panko at a local bakery from their own recipe. It's designed to be less oil absorbent to bring out the texture, crispiness, colour, and appearance.

      There are also side orders ($3.50 to $8) such as deep-fried scallops or jumbo prawns, deep-fried soft tofu, seasonal vegetables, or extra servings of tonkatsu.

      Udon
      Saku

      The menu does go beyond katsu for those who may want something else.

      Lim says they chose to offer udon because they felt it paired well with tonkatsu and also provided an alternative to ramen (of which there's no shortage of options in their neighbourhood). However, rather than using the usual thick noodles, Saku offers thinner ones. Udon options (from $10.50 to $11) include kake (hot) or bukkake (cold), as well as curry.

      In winter, Lim says they will add more seasonal dishes, and are considering a cream tonkatsu as well as using kurobuta (Berkshire) pork.

      As they also want to emphasize customer service, Lim says they have a somewhat slower turnover so they can cater to diners with care. That includes offering unlimited refills (based on the format of Japanese tonkatsu restaurants) of rice, tonjiru (soup with pork and miso), and shredded cabbage for all katsu sets.

      Consequently, if you plan to go, remember to factor in some wait time. For, as it goes without saying, good things come to those who wait.

      Craig Takeuchi

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