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Raku restaurant review, Duluth



What is Raku: a Japanese restaurant or a Korean restaurant?

It’s Japanese. Look at the menu — a nicely curated list of all the easygoing, snacky items and set meals that everyone in Japan, and everyone who visits Japan, learns to love. The house specialty is tonkatsu, an extra-crunchy pork cutlet that is the Far East’s answer to schnitzel.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

Actually, no, it’s Korean. The menu is written in Korean and English, the staff is Korean, and the vast majority of the clientele is Korean.

In fact, it’s a Japanese restaurant for Korean tastes. But all you really need to know is that Raku is a blast — the restaurant you need to keep in mind whenever you go shopping at the big H-Mart Plaza.

This 5-month-old spot is the new venture from the folks behind Honey Pig, the great pork belly grill nearby. Raku doesn’t have the ambition as the far larger and more expensive Honey Pig, which is a destination for an elaborate feast you cook at the table. At Raku, the focus is on fast and inexpensive, with a menu offering a best-hits list of dumplings, fried cutlets, fried noodles and ramen noodle soups — some dishes better than others, all worth trying. But it shares the same eye for modern design and fun detail that makes Honey Pig such a cut above. You’ll be charmed.

Fried calamari legs — battered and crispy fried —at Raku, in Duluth’s big H-Mart Plaza. (Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

Fried calamari legs — battered and crispy —at Raku, in Duluth’s big H-Mart Plaza. (Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

The look is industrial-organic, with benches fashioned from thick planks and iron tubing and bolted to wide-beamed wooden floors. Blocky banquettes made from unadorned pressboard surround tables. Glazed bamboo poles serve as room dividers, and a communal counter extends the length of the narrow room. A channel cut through the center of this counter holds hardwood charcoal, filling the room with a good energy. A widescreen HD television at the far end plays “The Terminator,” adding its own kind of energy. The ideograph for the Japanese word Raku — meaning “enjoyment” — is everywhere.

Tonkatsu, or crispy fried pork loin, at this Japanese restaurant for Korean tastes.

Tonkatsu, or crispy fried pork loin, at this Japanese restaurant for Korean tastes.

You can get a draft Asahi beer or a bottle of sake if you want, but I’ve grown inordinately fond of the iced green tea ($1.95), which is bittersweet and vividly green from a healthy dose of powdered matcha tea.

There’s nothing to stop you from making an event of this meal with appetizers and beers. But I like to get right to business. The tonkatsu ($8.95) brings a huge, mahogany, crunchy cutlet cut into chopsticks-ready strips and placed over a steel grill to keep it from getting soggy. On the side, for counterbalance, comes a mound of shredded red and green cabbage in a ginger dressing and a sweet/tangy dipping sauce that can best be described as Worcestershire gravy. One bowl of rice and another of miso soup comes alongside, making this the happiest of meals.

Noodles and house broth topped with chashu and egg, and iced green tea -- bitterly sweet and vividly green.

Noodles and house broth topped with chashu and egg, and iced green tea -- bitterly sweet and vividly green.

That’s the basic, but there are many variations. You can get the pork cut into cubes and threaded on a skewer ($8.95), or with spicy seasoning ($8.95), grated radish ($8.95) or a thick curry sauce ($9.95). You can get it piled over a bowl of rice with a delectable egg-and-onion sauce (“katsudon,” $6.95). Or you can skip pork altogether and get the most tender white meat chicken katsu ($7.95) you can imagine.

The restaurant’s second specialty is ramen — the noodle soup that begat the packaged product we all know. Raku makes all the regional styles of Japanese ramen — one with a soy-based broth, another with miso. The headliner and one that most ramen-heads go nuts for is rich “tonkotsu ramen ($7.95),” which hails from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. (“Tonkotsu” means “pork bone,” and it’s easy to confuse with the word “tonkatsu” above.)

Here, the broth is milky with pork fat and collagen and full of flavor. The soup comes garnished with slices of roasted pork belly (chashu), a half egg that’s not quite hard-boiled, a strip of seaweed and a crimson pile of shredded pickled ginger. It’s good eating — much better than the miso ramen ($7.95) that has little depth of brothy flavor.

If you do want to indulge in appetizers, the news is less interesting. Homemade gyoza dumplings ($4.95) have a flavorless ground meat filling that tumbles out of them when you bite. Steamed buns filled with pork belly, cucumber and hoisin sauce ($3.95) bring a bad version of the now-popular snack, the buns hard rather than pillowy, the sauce too sweet.

I do like the takoyaki ($4.95) served here — golf-ball-sized orbs of savory pancake filled with nubbins of octopus. The surface is breaded and fried to a crisp, then painted with Japanese mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce.

But I imagine anyone who knows real Japanese takoyaki will sputter they are all wrong, as these round treats should be cooked inside a die-cast iron (like waffles) rather than a fryer.

To them I say, “Go with it.”

Go with Raku’s Korean vision of Japanese comfort food. After all, the two specialties of the house — tonkatsu and ramen — both originated as ethnic fare in Japan. Tonkatsu originally was considered Western fare: The “katsu” comes from the word “katsuretsu,” which is a Japanese pronunciation of the English word “cutlet.” Ramen originated in Chinese restaurants in Japan, and the word is an etymological cousin to our word “lo mein.”

When comfort food is this good, it jumps across borders.

2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth 770-476-1212


Food: Fun Japanese comfort food through a Korean prism
Service: Fast and attentive, from a young group of bilingual servers
Best dishes: Tonkatsu, chicken katsu, katsudon, fried calamari, iced green tea
Vegetarian selections: Very little beyond edamame and cold tofu appetizer
Price range: $
Credit cards: Yes
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Fridays-Saturdays
Children: Great for kids
Parking: In lot
Reservations: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: No
Noise level: Moderate
Patio: No
Takeout: Yes
Website: None, but has a Facebook page


14 comments Add your comment


July 14th, 2011
12:49 pm

I wish something like this would open in town.


July 14th, 2011
2:15 pm

I agree Edward. We need more of these kinds of places in the city of Atlanta.

John Brown

July 14th, 2011
3:33 pm

Yea, I didn’t know what I was missing growing up in Snellville. I live in Chicago now in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, a mecca of Thai and Korean restaurants. Ever since I moved here in ‘92 I can’t get enough Thai. My girlfriend’s Korean, so I eat it often too. Fantastic spicy food. Congrats on getting these kinds of places in Gwinnett. They rock!


July 14th, 2011
3:35 pm

Wait, what? I thought ALL the good food was ITP…

I’m thrilled that there’s nothing like this ITP. Get in your car and drive to somewhere new for once.


July 14th, 2011
3:49 pm

I have to say that neither Japanese nor Korean food can hold a candle to Chinese or Vietnamese cooking as far as flavor, and depth of taste. Japanese food is very bland, and Korean food is just full of red chili powder, giving it a singular, and not very complex spicy flavoring. I am from the Caribbean where we are no strangers to spicy, using the Habanero chili in everything. I can only shudder at the thought of a Japanese restaurant for Korean tastes……perhaps it all revolves around the dipping sauces!

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Steven A.

July 15th, 2011
11:05 am

tom: While Vietnamese and Malaysian are my favorite Asian cuisines, you owe yourself a trip to Miso Izakaya or Umaido (another Korean-influenced ramen joint) before you dismiss Japanese food out of hand like that. I’m less versed in Korean cuisine, but I know enough to know that there’s a lot there that would surprise you too.


July 15th, 2011
6:43 pm


Immune thrombocytopenic purpura;?
Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura?
Institute of Transpersonal Psychology?
Industrial Technologies Program?
Perhaps we should use English, not acronyms?


July 16th, 2011
9:31 am

gashrink: grow up.

This place suck!

July 16th, 2011
3:28 pm

Why did you guys delete my comment! Is it because what I have to say is true about the food suck and this place doesn’t deserve two stars and one one star is even pushing it. Why even allow people to comment with their honest opinion if your going to remove my post. Isn’t it a free world, free speech or you John Kessler just didn’t like my comment about the place. The food was bland, steamed pork bun totally disappointment, katsu curry tasted bland, gyoza like something they pick up from the frozen isle of HMart, and tonkatsu tasted like nuggets from Mc’D. The service was super slow, the kitchen food is cooked by Mexican, the water cup was a small child cup that never got refilled. Sucks that I can’t post my honest opinion

This place suck!

July 16th, 2011
3:32 pm

Personally if you John Kessler is allowed to voice your own opinion on a restaurant, I too should be able too without my post being removed

Scott Anderson

July 16th, 2011
8:55 pm

This place suck !

Have you tried Matthews in Tucker lately ?

oh dont bother they aint open on weekends and have weird hours so forget it.


July 17th, 2011
1:07 pm

I can’t wait to try this place. Will do so next weekend.

I have come to love this blog. I don’t mind the drive and the experience is akin to traveling.

I have found some wonderful places on Buford Hwy thanks to you. Can’t wait to find more.


MJ Boyd-Bithorn

July 18th, 2011
11:45 am

After reading your review, we had dinner there on Friday evening. What a pleasant surprise to find this delightful place. Food is just as you described and the green tea delish! Thank you!