One plate with two great tastes that somehow create a third.

Glancing at the photo above, you might be thinking it’s a plate of curry rice, with a nice cutlet added in to make it especially satisfying. But look at it a little longer, and you might notice that the roux is a different color than curry usually is in Japan, with a reddish tint to it, and you might also think it’s strange that the potatoes are chopped into cubes.

But the truth is that those aren’t potatoes, they’re tofu, and this isn’t a plate of ordinary curry rice, it’s a plate of mabo curry, served up by restaurant chain Mabokari.

▼ Mabokari’s branch in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood is easy to spot even if you can’t read the restaurant’s written-in-Japanese name (マボカリ) thanks to its eye-catchingly colorful storefront.

Mabo tofu is what Japan calls mapo tofu, the spicy Sichuan tofu dish. In Japan, both curry and mabo tofu are customarily served poured over rice, and so Mabokari mixes them together to create a hybrid dish, mabo curry.

Mabokari isn’t the only restaurant in Japan that serves mabo curry, but the dish is relatively hard to find. Mabokari is also the only chain which makes mabo curry its signature dish, so when the chain, which started out in Osaka, made its way to Tokyo with its Shinjuku branch, we put it on our to-eat list, which led to our visit on a recent afternoon.

To order, you purchase a meal ticket from a vending machine at the entrance, which you then hand to the staff. The big button at the top left of the below photo (麻婆カレー) is the one for mabo curry, with the one to its right being for straight mabo tofu, and the one to the right of that omelet mabo curry.

We opted, of course, for the mabo curry, at the standard spiciness level, with a torikatsu/chicken cutlet as a topping, which came to 1,180 yen (US$7.90).

Visually, it’s very impressive, with a big beautiful cutlet sitting in a sea of mabo tofu sauce and curry roux, with a little archipelago of tofu.

We were curious to see whether the flavor would be more curry or more mabo, so we lifted up a spoonful to take a taste, and…

…the results were inconclusive. We could taste both curry and mabo tofu here, with the overall effect being right in the middle of what we associate with those two comfort foods.

This would require further testing, but at this point we’d also reached the limit of our willpower as far as resisting the urge to start eating the cutlet. So we grabbed the bottle of cutlet sauce on our table…

…poured some on, and took a bite.

It was outstanding. The chicken breast was a nice, thick cut, and the thin breading had a pleasant crispness to it that made for an excellent contrasting combination with the creamy texture of the curry roux/mabo tofu sauce mixture.

Then it was back to trying to figure out if the mixture tastes more like curry or more like mabo tofu sauce.

After many, many more mouthfuls, if we had to pick one of the other, we’d say it has, by only a very small margin, stronger mabo tofu vibes.

If we had to say why, though, really the only reason we’ve got is that there’s tofu on the plate too, which is something we mentally associate with mabo tofu but not curry. If you took out the tofu cubes and replaced them with chopped potatoes, we’d probably then say that it felt a little more like curry.

It’s all very much in keeping with the sign at the entrance, which says “People who have eaten it will tell you. ‘It’s not curry, and it’s not mabo tofu.’ It’s Mabokari.”

For as hard as its flavor is to pin down, though, this mabo curry tastes good enough that it’s very easy to love.

Restaurant information
Mabokari (Shinjuku Nishiguchi branch) / マボカリ(新宿西口店)
Address: Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Nishi Shinjuku 1-19-4
Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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