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.
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.
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.
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.
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.RAKU 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