If you think katsu sandwiches are the best things since sliced milk bread, start planning your next trip to Chinatown.
At Katsu Sando, the neighborhood’s latest, the iconic Japanese sandwich takes the form of panko-crusted pork loin, chicken breast, mushroom, wagyu and shrimp stacked between slabs of pillowy house-baked honey milk bread and spreads and salads like mustard miso ginger slaw. It’s the first brick-and-mortar location for the popular Smorgasburg food stall, and a little taste of Japanese conbini culture.
“I think the heart and soul of why people love the katsu sando from like a 7-Eleven in Japan is that it’s not supposed to be high-end or fine dining, it’s just supposed to be extremely relatable and affordable, which fit with our identity,” says chef and co-owner Daniel Son, who runs the outfit with co-owner and operations manager James Lee. “We just wanted to do it sort of true to its culture and true to its name.”
The quick but elegant to-go food of conbini can be found all over Japan’s chain convenience stores and mom-and-pop shops alike, providing fast, inexpensive and comforting sandwiches, salads and bentos for diners on the run. Similarly, while you can find plenty of hot, made-to-order katsu sandos, curry plates and season-packed waffle fries from Katsu Sando, a tall refrigerated section by the front door offers those same simple conbini pleasures: ready-made egg salad sandos; to-go curry plates; containers of chilled spicy miso edamame; potato salad; a range of hand-folded, house-made onigiri; and a cream-laced seasonal fruit sando.
Son and Lee gained major ground on Instagram thanks to the novelty and beauty of their fan-favorite $85 A5 wagyu steak sando, and fans can still find it here, but the name of the game at the Katsu Sando restaurant is affordability: All other sandos fall between $5 and $13, with curry plates at around $14, and high-end ingredients make their way into even the most inexpensive items.
Son takes technique and flavor seriously, especially when it comes to wagyu—and he wants to give everyone a taste. The Kura vet who trained in Japan begins by butchering an A5 wagyu tenderloin, then renders the fat of the trim and uses it to caramelize onions for the menchi (wagyu burger) katsu sando; he’ll add the extra trim from the tenderloin to his curry along with aromatics and a dashi built from dried-and-roasted anchovies.
Katsu Sando’s onigiri require just as much care: The hand-formed rice balls—served in conbini-style packaging for crisp nori—come in a few flavors, including a miracle-rice onigiri that involves tsukudani, or braised kelp with mushroom. (And after Son cooks the mushroom and kelp down, he then adds their braising liquid to, you guessed it, the curry.)
“For me, as Korean-Americans growing up in L.A., we grew up on curry,” Lee says. “That was a staple of all of ours, and so we’d go to the Curry Houses of the world. Recently Curry House closed their doors, so part of me is so glad we’re able to continue on that tradition of family, love-fueled curry.”
“We’re just trying to bring the Japanese convenience store to you, but a bit more chef-inspired,” Son adds while explaining their onigiri, stuffed with pork belly kimchi ssam, Korean perilla leaves and a little miso paste. “It’s like very L.A., very melting pot inside: Japanese, Korean. We’re definitely trying to do a sort of convenient store but not necessarily be Japan, but be L.A.’s convenient store.”
Conbini isn’t the only influence on Katsu Sando’s new spot. Japanese yoshoku cuisine—Western-influenced and characterized by famed dishes like omurice and katsu curry—allows Son and Lee to play in that melding of cultures and comfort food, a boon in a city whose blend of cultures define its excellence. “Yoshoko food is so underspoken, in America at least,” says Son. “It’s still very young, and there are no rules in yoshoko; we find it to be a very fun, creative space to work in.”
Orders can be placed onsite in the 860-square-foot restaurant or online through the official site. Further down the line the concept could expand or—even sooner—dip its toes into the nexus of merch and streetwear.
For now, find Katsu Sando bringing a little bit of comfort to Angelenos—and specifically to Chinatown—during an era when comfort foods like long-simmered curries and fried-shrimp sandwiches can fill bellies and hearts.
“We thought about whether we should wait to open or shouldn’t, but we thought it fit the new daily lifestyle,” says Son. “We felt like it would be more impactful during this time than if we did it in a normal time and we wanted to help feed the community, especially this community. Chinatown got hit really hard, and Chinese food, too, with coronavirus and all, so during Covid it really felt like it was important.”
Katsu Sando is now open in Chinatown at 736 N Broadway, with hours of 11am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday.Share the story