A visit to the favorite curry rice restaurant of the father of modern Japanese poetry.

In Japan, a lot of small family-run restaurants are excited and proud when a famous celebrity dines at their establishment. So we’re sure the owners of Ponchi were happy when Sakutaro Hagiwara became one of their regular customers.

Even if you keep pretty up to date with Japanese entertainment media, though, Hagiwara’s name might not ring a bell. That’s because he’s not a TV drama actor or pop idol. Hagiwara is a poet, and not just any poet, but the one known as “the father of modern Japanese poetry.” Hagiwara was born in 1886 in the town of Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, and Ponchi was his local go-to for curry rice.

Ponchi opened in 1920, and celebrates its history with some Taisho-era (1912-1926) photos in the window next to its entrance. But more so than the history of the building, it’s the history of the flavor of Ponchi’s curry rice that brought us here, since it’s said to taste the same now as it did more than 100 years ago.

The interior has a stylishly cozy and retro feel to it, and s currently run by the fourth-generation owners. The menu has a lot of casual Japanese restaurant standbys, like rice omelets, ginger pork, and fried shrimp, but the star is the curry rice, especially the 1,000-yen (US$7.65) katsu curry rice with a pork cutlet, so that’s what we ordered (besides, we’d already had an amazing rice omelet elsewhere just the other day).

We were even more sure we’d made the right call when the server set our dish down in front of us. The mouth-watering roux is light brown with an almost golden quality were the light hits it. Neatly lined up on one side of the old-school metallic plate were the pieces of the sliced cutlet, half-covering a pile of shredded cabbage plus some fujinzuke pickles.

We started with a taste of the roux. While some Japanese curries’ spice comes on at the end, Ponchi’s is the opposite. There’s a quick kick of fieriness at the start which then gives way to steadily spreading sweet notes and exquisite richness. The texture is melty and smooth, and all those factors combined make it so delicious that it’s almost emotionally moving to eat.

The cutlet is similarly flawless. The crisp breading doesn’t keep the meat from being tender and juicy, and arranging your spoonful so that you get rice, roux, and cutlet all in the same bite kicks things up to an even higher level.

Also waiting for you in the curry are diced beef and potatoes, tasty and different in texture from the crispy katsu to add variety and keep you stimulated throughout the entire meal. Not that it was a very long meal for us, since even though Ponchi gives you a pretty generous portion for the price, it was so delicious that we couldn’t stop eating and devoured it all without slowing down.

Ponchi’s curry is beautiful to the eye, heaven on the taste buds, and filling for the stomach, so it’d totally be worth ordering even if it didn’t have the special allure of a curry they’ve been serving for over 100 years. After trying it for ourselves, though, it makes a lot of sense why they’ve been making it this way for so long, and we don’t see any reason to ever change it.

Restaurant information
Ponchi / ポンチ
Address: Gunma-ken, Maebashi-shi, Chiyodamachi 3-3-18
Open Noon-3 p.m. (Monday), noon-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m. (Wednesday-Saturday), noon-6:30 p.m. (Sunday, holidays)
Closed Tuesdays

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