Hakata Tonton Review – Everything but the oink
This might be a better post for fall, but there’s something to be said about hanging to the last days of a summer with a steaming shabu shabu dinner. The sweet but sweaty struggle with overheating and overeating is nothing short of necessary. Spotting the pig-emblazoned lantern proud above the door, we had no trouble making our decision about which West Village place to plop.
Hakata Tonton is a small unimaginative space, with stark walls occasionally signed by familiar names. Mr. Matsuhisa has left his mark, and trying to remember the second part of that name was something of a challenge on an empty stomach. However, this small dining area teems with steam and general pork aroma. Portable gas ranges fired away, shrinking the mountains of vegetables piled onto each hot pot.
The menu is a maze of delicious. Despite the unattractive focus on pork feet, a true collagen-conossoiseur knows precisely what a name such as that entails. The gelatinous character that it lends to the shabu shabu broth is praise-worthy, and almost pardons the noticeable lack of actual piggy in the 2 servings we ordered.
Before the hot plate though, we did order a deep fried oyster. Despite the usual raw treatment, there is simply no crime is just dumping those suckers in the deep fryer. Unlike its raw serve cousin fatty fish belly, this fruit of the sea excels in batter, and retains a bit of a briny bite. Paired with spicy mentaiko, this was a promising start to any meal, and enough to stave the hunger as we insisted testing the watched-pot hypothesis.
Deep fried oysters.
The hot plate comes as a mountain of cabbage and chives, topped with goji berries. Deep in hiding is the pork belly, deeper still is the pork feet. As the heat slowly tempts the cabbage into submission, sparing pieces of pork belly surface with trepidation. So few are they in number that one finally resigns to the cabbage chive soup, pitiful perhaps as Charlie’s soup in the beginning chapters of …’s iconic story. However, there is no mistaking the tell-tale broth, with its slightly cloying texture, it leaves real lingering flavour. The two scant pieces that were fished out were delicate in size and opaque in color, a treat for the lucky few who chance upon it.
What Hakata Tonton is famous for.
Having the monstrous appetite that has made this blog possible, there was simply no question in picking up the menu once more. This time, we to spared no caloric expenses and ordered the broth based bibimbap. The last round of food had gifted us with patience. Slowly the broth evaporated and absorbed, leaving us with a porridge-like substance enough to fill three bowls. It was perfectly satisfying, with chunks of egg, and extraordinarily flavourful rice. Each spoon was a swiftly followed by another until of course, the spoons were made to scrap every last broth-soaked grain.
With natural ease, the menu was picked up once again. This time we ordered a green tea almond tofu and strawberry ice cream with premium mochi. The tofu arrived unassumingly, with a wheatgrass-shot-esque green tea companion. The green liquid was poured, and quickly it snaked into the crevices of the tofu. A bite was enough to showcase every flavour, green tea, almond, and a gentle wave of sweetness. The ice cream was standard, but the snack-sized mochi was a treat, even if it was but for one bite.
Ice cream with mochi.
Green tea almond tofu.
Hakata Tonton is a restaurant one might think to find in the East Village, with college students trying to sake-bomb their way to oblivion. However, it does shabu shabu just right, a notch above the loud-mouthed ramen purveyers and one below the formality of honor-bound sushi establishments. It finds its home in the West Village, precisely the mix of class and casual that makes eating out there a real treat on a Friday night.
PS. After the first sips of beer and bites of food, the little grey cells started to work and put Matsuhisa with the tip-of-the-tongue name, Nobu.
Hakata Tonton – Pig’s Feet Dinner in the Style of Fukuoka, Japan
One thing that I admire and respect about ethnic (or non-North American) foods is their willingness to use all parts of the animal. It feels like not long ago that the first head-to-toe whole pig dinners started popping up around here, but so many cultures have been doing it for millennia now. Not only have they saved many extra animals from consumption, they’ve also had the time to perfect ways to cook each part!
Hakata Tonton is a tiny neighbourhood Japanese joint that specializes in the cuisine of Hakata, a ward (city subdivision) of Fukuoka, Japan. It’s located at the south end on Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu.
As with so many regions of Japan, the people of Hakata developed their own unique cuisine, guided specifically by their love for pork (perfect for me!). At this particular location, the prized ingredient is pig’s foot, or tonsoku.
By itself, it’s a solid chunk of cartilage and bone without much of a taste. But the menu of Hakata Tonton manages to show off all sorts of ways to make tonsoku delicious. Add in some other specialties of the region such as pollock roe (mentaiko) and adaptations of street food of the region, and you’ve got a great representation of Hakata in New York!
The restaurant is rather small, with maybe room for 20 at table seats plus 6 more at the bar. Reservations are definitely necessary, but most people here were Japanese and seemed like regulars rather than people here to check out the hype. Not that it’s a bad thing, New York could use a few more delicious restaurants without the crazy hype!
I had the tasting menu here ($37 each, min two people) which in my opinion is amazing value for the amount, quality, and diversity of food that you get. A special shout-out goes out to David, my eating partner from Leeds, England! Without him I wouldn’t have been able to get the tasting menu and share in some great conversation!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
TONTON Salad – 5.5/6 (Excellent – Must try!), $10 (regular price, tasting menu size shown here)
Wow! I’m rarely this impressed by a salad but this one had so many great things going for it! Pretty much every taste and texture you could want in a salad was covered.
There was a pretty healthy portion of the base salad, mesclun, which is a mix of young salad leaves originating from France. Everything here tasted really fresh. The shabu shabu pork was simple and plain with its flavour dependent on the other components of the salad, although it was prepared tender enough.
The cherry tomatoes added some moisture and sweetness, while the cucumber and little fried crisps (karaage bits?) gave each bite some much-needed crunch.
The component that really held everything together was the yuzu miso sauce! It was just a little sweet, a little tart, a little salty, and had tons of umami flavour. Mix everything together and you have a delicious and well-balanced starter!
Kampachi Sashimi – 3.5/6 (Good - Very Good), $14 (regular menu, tasting menu size shown here)
When this first came out I had no idea what I was looking at. Was this some sort of art piece with green plants growing out of the ground? Oh wait, it’s just Hakata-style sashimi! In all honesty, I’ve never seen sashimi prepared (or rather totally submerged) in sesame seeds and sauce like this, so things got off to an interesting start!
Anyways, now on to the actual dish. The kampachi sashimi again tasted really fresh without any foul aromas from being stored too long. The texture was similar to albacore in that it was a little chewier than a fatty cut of tuna yet not stringy like parts of bluefin tuna can become. I felt that the fish taste wasn’t as notable as you would expect from your typical tuna sashimi though.
The sesame sauce dominated most of the flavour here. There was a pleasant nuttiness from the sesame seeds and sesame oil that I believe was added to the vinegar and soy sauce in the final dish. That being said, I didn’t find the flavour combination particularly notable, although the components were good quality and it was definitely interesting to try!
Crispy Fried Chicken – 5.5/6 (Excellent – Must try!), $9 (regular menu, tasting menu portion shown)
After that sashimi dish, the chicken karaage came out looking quite normal in comparison. Just a few pieces of fried chicken, what more could you want?
Hakata Tonton’s version of crispy chicken is absolutely delicious though! The chicken was perfectly fried, with a thin but super crispy outer batter surrounding the moist chicken on the inside. Nothing felt overly greasy or lathered in too much fried batter, which made the dish even more satisfying.
The sauce that went on the chicken made everything even better! Mentaiko, or pollock roe, may be a common Japanese ingredient, but spicy mentaiko is a Hakata specialty. The spicy mentaiko butter gave the whole thing a decadence as if the crispy chicken had been graced with the ever-so-slight touch of cavier or foie, with a mild spice kick adding to the awesomeness.
Simple, yes this was. But delicious, absolutely.
Grilled Pork Tonsoku – 5/6 (Excellent), $7 (regular menu, tasting menu portion shown)
Sorry. I got overly excited and started eating before I could take a picture. Take note restaurants, this is what happens when you advertise something as your showcase ingredient: I get too excited and forget to take proper photos!
Tonsoku is really just a big glob of cartilage and bone surrounded by skin, so naturally it’s expected that it wouldn’t have a lot of flavour. The skin was wonderfully charred to a crisp, with an intense smokiness that was unlike any other form of barbeque I’ve had before. I would gladly eat the skin alone if it all tasted this good!
The cartilage was soft and mushy but was very plain by itself. Our server recommended that we eat it with a few friends though.
On the left was a bottle of yuzu kosho. This was delicious and gave the cartilage of the tonsoku an explosion of flavour! In it was a thick paste made from chili peppers, yuzu peels, and salt, which is then fermented. On the right was a yuzu hot sauce with a similar taste profile of spicy and sour, except in liquid form and stronger on the heat.
Together with the tonsoku, the yuzu components provided a good mix of flavour and added some heat which warmed me up quite nicely! It’s hard to believe that something so simple could turn a boring pig part into a delight to eat when prepared properly!
While eating the small dishes, our server brought out the hot pot and told us to wait 15 minutes while our main course cooked. Looks like I was getting my fair share of veggies today too!
After what seemed like forever, it was finally time to dig in!
Hakata Tonton Hot Pot– 5/6 (Excellent), $13/person (regular menu, add $4 for ramen or bibimbap at the end)
Time for tonsoku round 2! Our server gave us a bowl to dig into this perfect winter dish.
This is exactly the type of dish I would want after walking home in a snow storm because it was so warm and hearty! The collagen broth was magnificent; I could’ve easily had liters of this stuff had I not been stuffed with a lot of food already!
The broth was rich and satisfying yet didn’t feel enriched by fats like a pork bone soup for tonkotsu ramen even though pork belly was an ingredient. There was no need for complex flavours or contrasts here: all the collagen infused into the broth from hours of cooking made ever the soup simple yet delightful.
Everything else in the hot pot was quite standard, although I liked the addition of chives as it added a fragrant taste that was unique.
Next, our server took the pot to the back and came back a few minutes later with more delicious soup and some ramen noodles!
Hakata Tonton Hot Pot (ramen) – 4.5/6 (Very Good – Excellent)
The ramen upgrade here is a must! The noodles did exactly what they were supposed to when placed in an elixir of awesomeness: soak up all the flavours! The result was a delicious yet simple soup noodle concoction. Don’t expect a traditional ramen here though because there was none of your typical ramen toppings to make this a full meal. The goal here was to again showcase the tonsoku collagen broth, and again this dish did the job perfectly.
I saw some other tables getting the bibimbap option which also looked delicious! The same stone pot was covered in rice and heated until the rice became crispy. I’m pretty curious to how the collagen broth flavour would have translated to a bibibamp but this meal was unfortunately coming to an end.
Strawberry Ice Cream – 3.5/6 (Good – Very Good)
Of course I didn’t forget about dessert! How dare you insinuate such blasphemy.
This strawberry ice cream was simple and refreshing. It wasn’t high-quality or artisan ice cream by any stretch of the imagination, but it did its job well.
There was a good amount of strawberry chunks in the ice cream, even if the overall texture was too icy. Nothing more I could’ve expected from ice cream from a Japanese restaurant.
Caramel Sesame Mochi – 3/6 (Good)
To go with the strawberry ice cream was a nicely wrapped prepacked mochi snack. The mochi was covered with some sesame-based powder and came with a caramel like sauce.
Sesame and mochi is a classic combination and it went well together as expected, but the caramel sauce was easily lost in eating the big chunks of mochi and didn’t really contribute much other than some sweetness.
I was a little disappointed that the tasting menu didn’t have some desserts made in-house and gave store-bought ones instead. Although the mochi was unique, I would have still preferred to see some traditional Japanese sweets like annin tofu to end the meal. A cup of hot tea was provided though which was a nice touch to end and a good way to warm up after our cold desserts.
Last but not least, as I was leaving the restaurant, a waitress ran up and offered me a Pez candy. She said it was to refresh our mouths, which was probably needed after all that food I just had! A super random way to end the meal but it was an interesting touch!
Hakata Tonton offers a combination of amazing regional Japanese food and great value which is really hard to beat. More importantly, it takes ingredients like pig’s foot and takes it to the next level in a way that is just as simple as it is satisfying. I didn’t come into this meal harbouring such high expectations, but this definitely ranks as one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in New York to date!
For many reviewers, Hakata Tonton is found to be a delicious slice of Japanese dining in New York City. Located at 61 Grove Street, New York, NY, Hakata Tonton is reviewed by many as great food at a great cost with a Japanese staff that's regarded as knowing their stuff. Hakata Tonton is firmly buried by many reviews in the four-star range, yet there are some reviewers that have had bad experiences as well.
For many reviewers, the hotpot is a mixed bag at best, being cited as tons of tofu with few actual dumplings. The rest of the menu seems well received however, with the yakitori being immense and the small plates receiving rave reviews, especially for the price.
The decor of Hakata Tonton is reviewed by many as being sparse with the Japanese memorabilia, but still being very cozy. It's also reviewed by many as small and as such, one will want to order reservations.
Lastly, the capability of the staff and service is very welcomed by many reviewers. The staff will hold doors open, refill your glasses if they're below half empty, and will show you people in New York still remember the words please and thank you.