How to Perfect a Chicken Katsu Sando at Home
Chef Charles Namba of Tsubaki and OTOTO shares his recipe for the iconic Japanese comfort food.
Charles Namba vividly remembers the first time he walked into the kitchen at Chanterelle, Chef David Waltuck’s since-closed four-star French restaurant in Tribeca.
Namba, at that point, was at the start of his career: After moving to New York City at 21, he spent three years working his way up in the raucous kitchen at the newly opened EN Japanese Brasserie. Namba, a Los Angeles-born and raised second-generation Japanese-American chef, grew up on Japanese comfort food by virtue of his mother, but his first foray into a French kitchen was a life-changing moment for him.
“I never knew what French food was,” Namba recalls. “So when I went into a French kitchen for the first time, it was the best experience, from lobster stock to different kinds of soups. It was a completely different new smell and taste to me.”
While Chanterelle closed in 2009, its spirit lives on in Namba. Now the chef and owner of LA izakaya restaurants Tsubaki and OTOTO, he says that the lessons he learned from his years cooking French food in Chanterelle’s kitchen early in his career was foundational to his ethos in his kitchen, where he whips up a variety of Japanese comfort foods, from classic izakaya fare, such as charcoal-grilled rice balls, to chicken katsu sandwiches.
In his kitchen, Namba says he practices the French art of subtraction, using seemingly simple, tried and true flavors to bring out the best in his sourced ingredients.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned from working in a French kitchen was that not a lot of unnecessary things need to go on a plate,” Namba says. “It wasn’t about a lot of fuss. It was focused on simplicity and flavors.”
Namba says his menu is a culmination of his years working in French, Japanese and Chinese-Portuguese kitchens on both coasts, as well as a tribute to his mother, a homecook who sold gyoza to Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. In fact, his first restaurant in Los Angeles, Tsubaki, takes its name from the official flower of her hometown, Kobe.
“My menu is everything I learned over my life,” Namba explains. “What I ate as a child, what I learned from Japanese people in New York, from French cooking. I want my diners to experience what I tasted and learned.”
Namba walked us through his recipe for OTOTO’s chicken katsu sandwich, an iconic Japanese comfort food with a surprising history in French culinary culture.
What is a katsu sando?
As its name suggests, a katsu sando is a cutlet sandwich usually made with Japanese milk bread, shredded cabbage, tonkatsu sauce, dijon mustard and fried pork or chicken cutlets.
The most archetypal style of katsu sando is made with a golden-fried pork cutlet, also known as tonkatsu, but really, katsu sandos come in all forms—from low-brow ham katsu sandwiches usually found on convenience store shelves across Japan, to decadent wagyu beef katsu sandwiches served at speciality restaurants.
Even a simple pork katsu sando can vary depending on the cut of meat used for the tonkatsu, from a hire-katsu sando made using lean pork tenderloin, to rosu-katsu sandwich, which uses a pork cut with marbled layers of fat.
While katsu sandos were invented in 1935 by tonkatsu restaurant Isen to accommodate geishas who wanted to eat tonkatsu without ruining their lipstick, tonkatsu has its origins in the first exchanges that Japan had with France after the end of both Japan’s isolationist policy in the 1860s and ban on meat-eating.
According to Japan’s National Diet Library, in 1868, after it first opened its ports to Western trade, Japan’s new Meiji Restoration government established the country’s first Western settlement in Tsukiji, the grounds for Japan’s first hotels and restaurants aimed at Western traders. Tsukiji’s first hotel’s restaurant, helmed by French chef Louis Begeux, soon became the way through which French cooking and cuisine would be introduced to Japan at large—chief among them, deep-fried côtelettes, which was later adapted into tonkatsu by Japanese chefs.
Today, katsu sandos are as ubiquitous as they are iconic. For Namba, katsu sandos evoke nostalgic memories of his mother, who packed him pork katsu sandos in his lunchbox when he went to Japanese Saturday school in Los Angeles. “My mom cooked all our meals,” he remembers. “It would be in my lunchbox. There would always be some left out when I got home. It would always be served with curry.”
Namba’s chicken katsu sando recipe is a classic recipe, one that reflects the tried and true flavors and ingredients used since the sandwich’s inception some 80 years ago. “I use chicken instead of pork because it’s a lot juicier and it’s hard to overcook it,” he says.
The most important ingredients, according to Namba, are the bread and panko. For bread, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, he recommends using bread baked by Little Tokyo’s Yamazaki Bakery. For panko, Namba advises getting the most expensive panko brand available at your local Japanese market—when it comes to katsu sando, quality matters.
OTOTO’s Chicken Katsu Sando Recipe
• 6-ounce Jidori skin-on boneless chicken thigh (cut into 3-ounce cuts)
• ½ cup flour
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup panko bread crumbs
• 2 slices of Yamazaki bread or Japanese milk bread
• 1 tablespoon Tonkatsu sauce
• 1 teaspoon ketchup
• 1 tablespoon ground sesame seeds
• ¼ wedge shaved cabbage
• Kewpie mayonnaise
• Optional: pickled jalapeños
1. Shave a good amount of green cabbage and shock it in a bowl of ice-cold water.
2. Coarse grind your panko.
3. Lightly toast two slices of bread. “Don’t toast it too much—you want it to be soft in the middle,” Namba says.
4. Mix your tonkatsu sauce with a dash of ketchup and sesame seeds to taste
1. Cut the 6-ounce chicken thigh into two 3-ounce pieces. Lightly sprinkle salt on top.
2. Dredge the chicken thighs in flour, then dip into an egg wash.
3. Dredge the chicken thighs in panko.
4. Heat your cooking oil to 350°F. Deep fry both three-ounce thighs for six minutes.
5. Spread Kewpie mayo on both slices of Yamazaki bread. Create a bed of shaved cabbage on the slice of bread.
6. Place both chicken thighs on top of the cabbage and drizzle with “a good amount” of tonkatsu sauce. (Optional: top with pickled jalapeños for a kick of heat.)
7. Cut the crusts off and eat while hot!