he katsu “sando,” a staple sandwich sold street-side in Japan and at convenience stores (konbini), has made its way onto domestic menus, offering American chefs a new bread-based opportunity for creativity and variation.
While the sandwich is found on only 2 percent of menus nationwide, according to Datassential, 65 percent of consumers who have tried it say they love or like it, so there’s plenty of room for growth. And, in this Instagram-obsessed era, the katsu sando offers chefs yet another chance to show off a prettily-presented, drool-worthy dish. In fact, images of wagyu beef-based katsu sandwiches have exploded in the last year on social media, leading to Chef Daniel Son of Kura in L.A. opening a katsu sando pop-up with a $70 version and Chef Sam Clonts of Uchu in New York offering one on the tasting menu for $200.
But first, a little history. According to the Government of Japan, the sandwich has origins dating as far back as the late 1800s during the Meiji Period when Japanese chefs began to adopt more dishes and recipes from Western parts of the world as a way to modernize the cuisine. Before the katsu sando, there was tonkatsu, a breaded and fried pork cutlet served with sauce. That dish, which first appeared on the menu at the Western-style Rengatei restaurant in 1899, was essentially modeled after the côtelette de veau, a French dish featuring a breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet. Key Japanese variations included a switch from butter to oil for the frying and soft panko in place of breadcrumbs and served with a mix of two types of tangy Worcestershire sauce in place of rich demi-glace.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the sandwich version of tonkatsu came about, offering Tokyoites a delicious and filling, on-the-go lunch or snack as yet another Western- influenced rival to the ubiquitous, American burger. The katsu sando traditionally features a breaded and fried pork cutlet dressed with a semi-sweet and tangy katsu sauce, topped with crunchy, shredded cabbage and sandwiched between two pieces of fluffy milk bread lightly spread with mayo.
Katsu sandos “are often served room temperature in Japan, but we decided to make ours to order,” says Chef Jason Liang, owner of Brush Sushi Izakaya in Decatur, Ga., and Momonoki in Atlanta. Liang first served the sandwich on the brunch menu at Brush Sushi Izakaya until it became so popular that it’s now a mainstay on the main menu at Momonoki. “The sandwich is very easy to make, but because there are so few ingredients, any less quality ingredient can affect the entire taste,” he says.
Here, Liang explains the key elements of the katsu sando and his variations.
While traditional katsu sandos feature a thin, breaded pork cutlet, the pork can be substituted with just about any other protein. Chefs have mixed it up with chicken cutlets, steak, fish filets, shrimp, even spicy pulled pork. There’s a vegetarian-friendly, breaded avocado and shiitake on the menu at Momonoki.
Most recently, Liang introduced a cheese pork option which he makes by stuffing a pork loin with fresh mozzarella cheese that he roasts and finishes with American cheese layered between the cabbage and sauce.
While katsu sauce is available in bottled form, Liang prefers to make his own.
He starts by simmering chicken bones and aromatics for a stock that he then strains, cools and thickens with the bottled donkatsu sauce, Japanese Worcestershire and unnamed spices and seasonings. The process takes up to five hours, but Liang says the result is worth the effort. The fried protein gets a dip in the sauce before it’s layered with the cabbage.
While just about any type of shredded cabbage can be used for the katsu sando, Liang prefers to use Japanese- or Taiwanese-style cabbage because he finds it to be more tender and not as fibrous as American cabbage. The slight sweet veg adds a nice, light crunch.
When it comes to the mayonnaise portion that’s typically spread on one or both slices of bread, Liang prefers to use kwepi mayo, a Japanese version that’s slightly tangier and smoother than other versions because of its use of extra egg yolks and gets an umami punch from MSG or dashi powder.
At the core of the katsu sando is shokupan, or milk bread, which Liang describes as lighter and a touch less sweet in taste and fluffier and with more “stretch” than brioche.
Milk bread can be challenging to find in the U.S., so it’s not uncommon for chefs to swap in Hawaiian bread or another type of slightly sweet, white bread and cut the crusts off to keep in line with the tradition. Liang lucked out — he’s able to source the authentic bread from a local Korean bakery.
To complete the dish, Liang stuffs the sandwich in a paper bag and then slices it down the middle to expose the elements for presentation, plus it makes it easier to eat.
“Figuring out our version of the katsu sando took a good amount of trial and error on our part, but we think we got it as one of the first few restaurants in the U.S. to serve it,” he says.