In Japan, the name “Maisen” evokes an almost God-like reverence. The eatery, established in 1965 in the Hibiya Mitsui Building in Tokyo, has built and forged its identity off the back of its famed tonkatsu pork cutlets. To this day, serpentine queues trail outside the flagship outlet in Tokyo’s Aoyama, which opened in 1978 in a converted 1920s bath house.
Since those heady early days, Maisen has spread its wings throughout Japan with 13 restaurants and 60 takeaway stores while the brand’s famed katsu sando sandwiches are eponymous on transportation hubs throughout the country.
But outside of Japan, Maisen’s presence hasn’t been as noticeable or as marked. This was something Donald Lim, managing director of TM Restaurants was determined to change.
“This is a brand that I wanted to bring into Malaysia for many, many years. But Maisen is just so successful in Japan, they didn’t really have to think about going overseas and when we first approached them years ago, they weren’t really interested.
“But then they were acquired by Suntory Corporation, so as a bigger corporation, they wanted to expand overseas so that’s how we got this opportunity,” says Lim, adding that Maisen has now launched in the Philippines and Thailand as well.
Putting together the first Maisen in Malaysia required a year of planning. Lim said four members of the kitchen team were sent to Japan for a few weeks for training to ensure they retained the rigorous standards set by the brand.
Then there was the process of sourcing ingredients. While the Japanese management team was very happy with the quality of Malaysian pork, it was the panko breadcrumbs required for the breading of the pork that simply could not cut the mustard.
“We tried and tried with the panko breadcrumbs, but we just couldn’t make it the same, so we got it from Japan. Crazy, right?” says Lim, laughing.
Six years after Lim first tried to get the brand into the country, the inaugural Maisen outlet in Malaysia has finally opened in the thriving Sunway Pyramid Mall in Selangor.
So what is tonkatsu? It is a seemingly simple dish that consists of pork loin or fillet coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried to perfection. The ideal tonkatsu should have a crackly, crunchy exterior that segues into meat that is perfectly juicy and flavourful.
One of the distinctive qualities of a good tonkatsu is “kendachi” or how the breadcrumbs stand straight, almost like tumbleweeds swaying in the breeze. It is a tough feat to achieve but is also one of Maisen’s trademarks. In fact, the brand even has its own “Breading Master” programme to ensure the techniques that have kept Maisen going will continue well into the future.
Another key element of Maisen’s tonkatsu is the fact that the cooked pork is so tender, it can be cut with chopsticks. To achieve the tenderest meat, each slice of pork used is chosen from the top 10% of the pig (9% loin and 1% tenderloin), then carefully cut and pounded to ensure malleable, juicy meat.
The tonkatsu is complemented by different sauces made in-house – the sweet, tangy Amakuchi sauce and the savoury, slightly acerbic Karakuchi sauce, made using a secret blend of simmered fruits and vegetables and at least 10 different kinds of spices.
Often when a brand has so much preamble, hype and lore, people naturally have preconceived notions and heightened expectations. So does Maisen live up to its reputation?
Oh yes, it does.
To begin your porcine odyssey here, try the Pork Potato Croquette (RM13). Here you will discover silken potato interspersed alongside tender pork cubes, both of which are encased in a perfectly breaded and fried croquette, which reveals a crackly, crispy carapace and an interior that is nothing short of a flavour bomb.
Then there is the Tenderloin Katsu Sando (RM15 for three pieces). Each day, over 25,000 katsu sandos are sold throughout different Maisen outlets in Japan, which highlights the enduring popularity of this dish. Here, soft doughy white bread buttresses and cushions breaded, fried pork tenderloin and a layer of house-made sando sauce (a tangy little perk-me-up) in what proves to be a combination so hedonistically good, it’s hard to even form thoughts while you’re chewing.
Then there are the main highlights at the restaurant, like the Tenderloin Katsu Set (RM37 for a medium portion). Each set comes with fluffy rice, shredded cabbage, miso soup, pickles and fruits. The true breakout star in this ensemble is of course the pork tenderloin, which is a breaded brown beauty whose brittle, perfectly crunchy shield gives way to oh-so juicy, succulent meat inside. It’s the stuff you’ve been waiting for – and trust us when we say there is a reason the brand has attained legendary status for this dish.
Up next, look at trying a quintessentially Japanese favourite – the Loin Katsu Curry Set (RM45). Here, perfectly breaded and fried pork loin arrives accompanied with a generous portion of curry sauce, air-flown from Japan. The curry sauce is that oh-so quirky Japanese offering of a thick, sweet sauce with subtle curry undertones to balance it out. When poured over the fried loin, it gives it a distinctly different taste that imbues the pork with a sweet-spicy kick.
Expect to savour tonkatsu in all sorts of guises at Maisen, including the Tenderloin Cheese Katsu-ni Set (RM43) which features juicy, crispy pork tenderloin blanketed under a layer of ooey-gooey melted cheese. This is a nirvanic meal that features a good thing topped by another good thing in a case of “you can never have too much of a good thing”.
For a grand finale, save some room in your over-extended stomach for the Katsumabushi Tenderloin Set (RM39). This is a dish that requires a step-by-step process to ensure total fulfilment. First, you are required to spoon the tonkatsu and rice into a bowl, then top this with condiments like sesame seeds, spring onions and wasabi. Finally, pour the provided dashi broth onto the rice until it forms a warm moat around the assemblage.
The resulting meal is a warm homage to the soothing, sating properties of a nourishing meal made well. The tonkatsu still retains crispness but this is softened by both the bloom of the rice and the broth, which has rich umami notes that add to the allure of the meal.
Given Maisen’s stellar reputation, Lim says that there will definitely be expansion across the Klang Valley.
“Of course we will expand, but I think we’ll have to see what opportunities arise. We won’t open just anywhere – we have to look for high-profile, good quality locations,” confirms Lim.
LG 1.45, Lower Ground One
Sunway Pyramid Mall
3, Jalan PJS 11/15
47500 Petaling Jaya
Tel: 03-5611 6899
Open daily: 10.30am to 10pm