Hakata Tonton: A Bostonian’s First Venture into Kyushu Cuisine
Let me preface this review with an important timeline. Ten years ago, hamburgers, roast chicken and pizza were the heart, soul, and body of my eating experience; five years ago, I had finally tasted my first sushi roll (spicy tuna) and enjoyed medium spicy chicken yellow curry; just 5 months ago, tuna was still the only fish I agreed to eat. Last night, I went balls-out at Hakata Tonton, a self-preclaimed house of ‘authentic Kyushu Japanese soul food,’ and tried pig foot, tendon, and collagen.
Hakata Tonton is not for everyone, and I’m not convinced that it’s for me. Most of the items on the menu are, as they say, ‘strange to the eye;’ dishes walk the line between sounding too unusual and sounding potentially good. If you’re not accustomed to the cuisine, the best way to dive right in is to sample all of the house specialties and be open to confusing and frighteningly new flavors.
The menu features hot plates, cold plates, and ‘hot pots’ that are cooked in front of you. Expect to see a variety of carpaccio plates, including Japanese Veal Liver sashimi, many permutations of ‘pork tonsoku’ or pork trotter, collagen soup, sauteed pork tongue, foie gras inari sushi, foie gras soba, collagen spring rolls, fried octopus sushi, and such Korean favorites as bibimbap and kimchee. My friend Jen and I, overwhelmed by the extensive menu, opted to start off slow with the spicy tuna carpaccio. It was good and by far the highlight of the night for me. Thick slices of fresh tuna were arrayed in a savory vinaigrette loaded with salt, scallions, and a creamy spicy mayo. Zingy and zesty, this carpaccio was a great way to start the increasingly bizarre meal to come.
Next? The grilled pork tonsoku, or in other words, pork foot. Despite being tagged as a recommended dish and as a speciality of the house, this was the real disappointment of the evening. Tough with tendon and fat, the trotter lacked any seasoning whatsoever. Instead of eating something savory, I was ingesting what tasted like bland slabs of lard.
The requisite ‘hot pot’ we tried steered clear of trotter, focusing instead on pork sirloin and pork belly, plenty of vegetables (read: bean sprouts), and a tangy complicated collagen broth. The broth was unlike anything I have ever tasted, leaving a salty zing in the back of my mouth for hours; the pork bits were presented like bacon and very tasty with some spice and sauce. Regardless though, the hot pot was lacking as well, tasting pretty good but just immensely unsatisfying.
Halfway through a bottle of sake, Jen and I decided that if we were going to try the house specialties, we had to try the collagen with spicy sesame sauce. It arrived diced into slivers in a bowl with vegetables (more bean sprouts) and a coating of savory sauce. Although a strange consistency, it was surprisingly tasty (if you just ignore the fact that you’re eating straight tendon).
The desserts were great, not only in that they offered more familiar flavors but also in that they allowed us to leave on a good foot. The cheese mousse was a light and fluffy blend of cream cheese and heavy cream atop vanilla ice cream and thick strawberry jam – it tasted like the mangled daughter of cheesecake and strawberry shortcake (not altogether unpleasant, as you can imagine). The mochi cake was soft, sticky, and texturally glorious, served atop a generous dollop of creamy vanilla ice cream. After this, it’s official – I really love Japanese desserts.
Hakata Tonton is a strange place – small, crowded, hot, and stuffed with young hipster couples and friends feasting over bizarre foods and flavors. The staff is female and pretty, young, friendly, with torn t-shirts and fiesty attitudes. Certainly not an experience everyone would enjoy, Hakata Tonton offers something unique in the otherwise often ‘copy-and-paste’ New York dining scene. Like S’MAC and mac & cheese, Pomme Frites and french fries, The Meatball Shop and meatballs, Hakata Tonton harps on two Japanese delicacies: collagen and pork foot. Whether that’s your cup of tea or not is for you to decide; however, if you’re in search of something unusual, something truly out of the ordinary, Hakata Tonton will deliver.