This noodle-less tonkotsu ramen dish totally messed with our heads.

Tonkotsu ramen (pork-bone broth ramen) is incredibly popular in Japan, and like many noodle dishes, it’s often served with familiar toppings like shallots, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), narutomaki (steamed fish cake), nori (dried seaweed) and char siu pork slices.

So when we heard that katsudon chain Katsuya had added a new item to their menu called “Tonkotsu Chicken Katsudon“, we were immediately confused. Tonkotsu is usually only used in relation to ramen, not katsudon (fried cutlet) rice bowls, so we decided to head out and try it, but when we saw it on the menu, we were still confused.

▼ Errr…how is this not tonkotsu ramen?

The image on the menu looked exactly like a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, only with a fried chicken cutlet added to the familiar noodle toppings. However, as fans of Katsuya will know, this chain doesn’t serve noodles — even the sign out the front has “カツ丼” (“katsudon”) and “とんかつ” (“tonkatsu” or “fried pork cutlet”) written on it not once, but twice, to really highlight the fact that this restaurant specialises in fried cutlet rice bowls.

Whatever it was, though, it looked delicious, so we decided to order the “Extra Char Siu Tonkotsu Chicken Katsudon” for 1,089 yen (US$7.66). This option contained more char siu than the regular Tonkotsu Chicken Katsudon, which costs 869 yen, and when it arrived we were pleased to see it contained three slices of pork instead of one.

Plus, it looked like an edible work of art.

It looked even more like ramen than we’d anticipated, so we couldn’t resist lifting a piece of pork to find out whether there were any noodles hiding underneath all those ramen toppings.

For a nanosecond we thought we spied some noodles but they turned out to be…

▼ …mung bean sprouts!

This dish was playing us expertly — no matter what angle we looked at it from, it was manipulating our minds into thinking we were about to tuck into a hot bowl of noodles.

At this point it seemed to be taunting us to try it, so we started cautiously by picking up a piece of chicken cutlet, which was the one thing we could see in the bowl that didn’t look perfectly at home with the ramen toppings.

▼ Crunchy and delicious, this was a welcoming start to the unorthodox meal.

Delving further into the mix, we saw that there was rice beneath the bean sprouts, and there, swimming between the grains was a tonkotsu sauce masquerading as a broth, to once again fool us into thinking we were eating ramen.

This sauce threatened to steal the show with its distinctive pork-broth flavour, melding with the other ingredients to mimic a bowl of ramen with remarkable accuracy. However, as we made our way through the ingredients, the chicken cutlet began to overpower the proceedings, surprising us with its powerful presence.

▼ From the looks of things, you might think the bountiful char siu would be the overpowering ingredient, but it was mellow in flavour compared to the juicy cutlet.

While we loved the cutlet’s strong presence in the dish, it actually worked to highlight how out of place it was amongst the other ingredients. No matter how hard it tried to fit in with the gang, it just didn’t sit right, and in the end we ended up eating it on its own, treating it like a side dish rather than a team player.

That didn’t mean the rest of the ingredients felt at home on the palate, though, because it was a chaotic mix that totally messed with our heads. Every time we took a bite of rice with one of the toppings, it just felt…weird.

▼ Delicious, but weird.

Who knew the absence of noodles would be so noticeable when eating a mixture of ramen toppings? We thought the rice would be a good substitute for noodles, but no matter how many mouthfuls we had of it, it just didn’t give our taste buds the same level of satisfaction. Even when we tried to think of it as an unusual type of rice bowl dish, our minds just couldn’t comprehend that fact because it resembled ramen so perfectly.

It was part rice bowl, part ramen, and all parts weird. But are we glad we tried it? Absolutely! Now we’ve tried this dish, we have an even greater appreciation for the humble noodle and the pleasure it brings.

Related: Katsuya
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