Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: We Need to Talk About Katsu’s Korean and Japanese Pasta in Mesa

Kimchi pasta and mentaiko pasta on deck at Katsu in Asiana Market.
Kimchi pasta and mentaiko pasta on deck at Katsu in Asiana Market. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Just the other week, I reviewed a pasta restaurant in north Scottsdale. The story got into the nuances of traditional pasta cookery: tossing methods, regional ingredients like nutmeg, and so on. We considered the northern region Emilia-Romagna, arguably the noodle perihelion of Italy, where, allegedly, in a municipal building in Bologna, an 8-millimeter-wide strand of solid gold tagliatelle lies in a glass display — a reminder to posterity of the noodle’s proper dimensions.

This week, I found myself staring down a plate of kimchi pasta. A knot of spaghetti rose from a vivid orange lagoon, magmatic cream sauce that shone in the fluorescent lights of the Asiana Market in Mesa, looking like nacho cheese an inch deep. Bits of red chile and shrouds of fermented cabbage decked the neon below antennae lancing from the heads of halved shrimp. There was chopped green onion, bacon, mushrooms. On the plate rim, minced herbs circled the pasta like crushed ice does Saturn.

There are deep mysteries to ponder in pasta steam. On this evening, one, after a few perplexing bites, was how this pasta could be so good. Another was that, almost as a rule of the universe, posterity has its own ideas.

click to enlarge Danny Jeong went to culinary school in South Korea, and cooked in Italy and Los Angeles' Koreatown. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Danny Jeong went to culinary school in South Korea, and cooked in Italy and Los Angeles' Koreatown.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
This kimchi pasta, essentially carbonara (with changes and flourishes) tossed with kimchi, was dreamed up by Danny Jeong. Jeong went to culinary school in his native South Korea, spent a year cooking in Italy, and first twirled kimchi pasta not long after taking to the stoves in what would become a run of jobs in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. In the beginning, his pasta bombed. He honed the recipe over the years.

Jeong opened Katsu last fall, his fourth restaurant in Asiana Market since its 2018 expansion. Since moving from Korea in 1997, Jeong, 45, has cooked in Italian and Korean eateries in many places. More recently, before moving to Arizona for the Asiana project, he opened restaurants in San Diego’s H-Mart. At Katsu, Jeong plates some traditional dishes, others marked by intercultural hybridity. His limited menu — four pastas, bulgogi, tteokbokki, chicken wings, omelets, and katsu — is part Japanese, part Korean, one tiny bit Italian. You can order standard Japanese katsu. You can order tteokbokki, Korean rice cakes, alla carbonara.

Jammed into a snug space with an odd menu, you could easily overlook Katsu. Hungry patrons of the food court are more likely to sit at the central, cafeteria-style tables with bibimbap from the neighboring eatery, or mandu dumplings from the grill across the way. But should the novelty of Katsu’s menu ensnare your appetite or imagination, you would be wise not to overlook its old-school offerings.

Omurice, a Korean omelet, enrobes a football of fried rice in leaf-thin egg. If its “original” sauce tastes like mustard barbecue sauce, well, that’s because barbecue sauce, along with oyster sauce and Tabasco, are three of many ingredients that reduce for a full day. The omelet is unsexy but solid. The tteokbokki, a Korean street food of chewy rice cakes like tiny Roman candles, features vermilion gochujang sauce with fermented depth. They are likable, if a little hamstrung by mildness.

click to enlarge The kimchi pasta, bulgogi burrito, and katsu at Katsu. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The kimchi pasta, bulgogi burrito, and katsu at Katsu.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
A spicier gochujang sauce, this one the texture of melted candy, gives the chicken wings a numbing heat that isn’t too spicy. White meat beneath a soft cowl of skin proves to be plump and juicy. A bulgogi burrito, the grilled beef tight folds of razor-thin rib-eye, nods to Mexico and Vietnam. A rough flour tortilla encloses the tender package. As with banh mi, pickled vegetables (carrots and turnips) counter meaty heft with acid, bite.

Except for pasta, the breaded Japanese cutlet known as katsu is the best thing at its namesake restaurant. Sail-like cutlets of chicken or pork are breaded in panko. Thick batter. Succulent moist pork inside. This is a really nice cutlet of the kind you can’t overthink and just have to enjoy. You often see katsu served on a wire rack, so that the moisture produced by the cutlet doesn’t sog its breading, but here the slathered pork drips so much curry sauce that they don’t bother.

Pasta, though, is what truly separates Katsu. Here, the Italian-style noodle has circumnavigated the planet: from China (origin), over the Silk Road to its place of evolution on the Italian peninsula, to the New World with late last millennia’s immigrant waves, and back to the far east again.

That said, not all of Katsu’s intercultural pastas are newly invented.

Jeong makes mentaiko, a Japanese pasta of Italian-style noodles and spicy pollock roe. The pasta arose in the years after 1945, when World War II ended, when men like my Sicilian-American grandfather lived on battleships in places like the Bay of Tokyo, anchored within weeks of the second atomic bomb. Through American troops, many from recently emigrated families, Italian pasta passed to Japan (closing another loop of the globe). Today, mentaiko pasta is a comfort food in Japan, often eaten after long nights.

Katsu’s mentaiko is richly buttery. Spaghetti is imbued to each core with briny flavor that speaks delicately of marine worlds. Butter and mild pollock roe (skipping the chile is Jeong’s signature) cling to the noodles like milky glue, so creamy that you might think uni is involved. (It isn’t.) With a light sweetness to mellow the sea flavor, this pasta is linguine with clams on vacation in Shizuoka.

click to enlarge The scorching hot mentaiko pasta. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The scorching hot mentaiko pasta.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Pasta loses flavor swiftly as it cools. It will never be as stellar as it is the heartbeat it leaves the pan. Katsu’s mentaiko arrives scorching hot — the right temperature — with noodles on the soft side of al dente, but there.

Like his kimchi pasta, Jeong’s mentaiko is a cultural hybrid. The crossing simply happened a few decades earlier.

As you wrap up a meal at Katsu, timelines are worth considering. If you, like me, happen to have one line of ancestors from two hours south of Rome, tossing carbonara with kimchi may seem sacrilege. But carbonara was invented in the 1950s. And legend says that it was invented to satisfy the hunger of American troops, who liberated Rome from the grip of fascist rule near the end of World War II, troops who had a taste for Italian pasta with bacon and eggs. Carbonara and mentaiko are both intercultural hybrids, both roughly the same age.

If you need convincing, this may be enough to get you to try kimchi pasta. A more persuasive argument, though, is taste: noodles pervaded with comforting flavor; sauce shamelessly abundant and richly creamy, with a current of chile heat to lap your tonsils and aromatic green onions to soothe your soul, with the smoke of pork belly flavoring the sauce on the dim level of a spice. And later, driving home, you can still feel the warmth of this pasta carrying you, still taste the bacon on your lips.

1135 South Dobson Road, Mesa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Chicken wings $8
Pork katsu $12
Mentaiko pasta $12
Kimchi pasta $11
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy