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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Precision-Fried Pork

February 04, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

The Japanese pork cutlet tonkatsu is often an unlovely creature, carelessly fried, sodden, plopped on the plate with gobs of brown sauce that resemble a slightly "Orientalized" A-1. Coupled with its inevitable companion, gloppy curry rice, tonkatsu becomes the token heavy dish on the menu in a Japanese greasy spoon. A plate of katsu curry rice tends to bear the same relationship to a night of serious drinking in Tokyo that a Tommyburger does in Los Angeles. Like the supercomputer and the economy car, tonkatsu was a Western import that the Japanese caught onto and figured out how to engineer. Unlike the supercomputer and the economy car, Japanese fried pork has rarely traveled well.

Yet Apple, a Japanese pork specialty restaurant in the cavernous Little Tokyo Square, serves a splendid tonkatsu . In Apple's window are wax models of fried pork, as lifelike as other restaurants' displays of wax noodles or wax tiger-eye rolls. The L-shaped dining room is small and modern, with a handful of tables and a row of counter seats lined up against what would have been the open kitchen if the owners hadn't thrown up a mirrored wall between the cooks and the diners. In a corner sits a stack of comic books and copies of Japanese Elle. The iced coffee, served with little pitchers of cream and sugar syrup, is extremely good.

On each table sit the accouterments of proper Japanese pork eating: a tiny dish of hot mustard; a cruet of soy; a large ceramic pot of Apple's special tonkatsu sauce covered with a wooden lid. Inside the sauce pot is an implement that looks something like the pipe that Popeye smokes--you dip out a portion with the cylindrical bowl of the tool and drizzle it over your meat.

Here is what you get on your plate with almost anything you order: a perfect half-sphere of mashed-potato salad; a giant pile of shredded cabbage; a tawny slab of something fried. Beforehand you get a dish of briny pickled cabbage and a bowl of decent miso soup that has been spiked with shreds of pork and rounds of stewed turnip and carrot.

Tonkatsu comes robed in a brittle golden crust, roughly textured and as greaseless as it may be possible for a coating of deep-fried bread crumbs to be; the crust gives way with a crunch to a moist, firm slab of meat. The slightly bitter, carbonized taste of the crust adds a tang to the bland sweetness of fresh lean pork; a nailhead-size dab of the house's fearsomely hot mustard cuts through the slight oiliness; a splash of the house's sweet, thick tonkatsu sauce brings out a subtly gamy flavor in the meat.

Among connoisseurs, there may be crucial differences between the various cuts of pork here, the way the Viennese gourmets in the famous Joseph Wechsberg story insisted on their own, extremely particular cut of boiled beef. You can choose your cut of meat, though if it's flavor you're after, you might as well go for the bottom-of-the-line tonkatsu , which is slightly fattier and thus tastier than the lean and expensive tenderloin.

One variant, called "bite-size" on the menu, involves pork fillet cut into pieces the size of silver-dollar pancakes, individually battered and fried, served fanned out on the mound of cabbage. Because the meat is sliced so thin, the bite-size fillets become essentially 100% crunch, like giant kettle-chips that just happen to be made out of pork instead of potatoes; actually they are pretty good if you're looking for a basic vehicle to dip up the sauce.

Other options include fried mashed-potato croquettes flavored with Japanese curry, onion-y balls of fried ground meat, fried small fishes and slabs of fried squid. Squid doesn't take to the bread-crumb coating as well as one might wish.

Apple Restaurant

Little Tokyo Square, Top Level, 333 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-5858. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Validated lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $13 to $20.

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