Hako Restaurant has become a frequented establishment for Irvine locals seeking to satisfy their katsu cravings. While the crux of Hako’s menu caters to various forms of katsu and tonkatsu dishes, Irvine Weekly spoke with Hako’s owner Paulo Chun, who explained why his cheesy pork katsu has become a best seller in Irvine.
Chun, 36, can still remember his first time eating his mother’s home cooked katsu as a child.
“It was a household item – if not once a week it was every other week. It’s something my mother made – she fried it in our kitchen, breaded it herself,” Chun recalled. “A lot of that has been grandfathered into my restaurant.”
So much in fact, that he has parlayed a career in the real estate industry into katsu restaurant ownership.
“I really liked surfing in Newport, I was looking for a place to eat after surfing – I’d alway ended up in Irvine,” he explained. “I just thought that I needed to share my family’s recipe with Irvine and Orange County.”
For the uninitiated, Hako’s cheesy pork katsu is a thick, panko crusted pork loin stuffed with cheese. The cheese stuffed panko-pork is then deep fried, creating a flaky, golden brown cut of pork oozing with melted cheese.
Starting with his mother’s recipe, Chun said Hako’s cheese-forward dish is the product of a lengthy research and development process, and is still made by hand at Hako each day.
“Every katsu is made by hand – crafted specially by professionals. We put our spices on there, we keep it simple,” Chun explained. “No MSG, no artificial flavoring – just salt and pepper, we wrap it, and we have a secret batter that we use in house.”
Hako also takes an extra step with its katsu breading.
“Our breading is not just breading, it’s three different breads. We source two of them locally, the other comes straight from Japan,” he explained. “We have a recipe for the bread as well, so the batter and the bread is our speciality – and the meat as well, because it’s very expensive meat.”
Chun added that Hako makes each katsu per order.
“I think that’s why we have the response that we have,” he said. “I wanted to do some special katsu, not the pork katsu, not the chicken katsu. The cheese is something we just R&D for months and months, so we finally got a good recipe for that cheese. We found the perfect template – it was hard in the beginning, it always came loose, it was hard to fry it because the cheese would exit the pork and be a mess in the fryer.”
In Irvine, Hako has plenty of katsu competition. In addition to ethnic eats, Chun understands that Irvine locals have plenty of options when it comes to quick bites. But as far as katsu goes, Chun said his mother’s recipe still reigns supreme.
“I think Irvine has every single food,” he said. “There’s a lot of people doing this – Champion’s Curry, CoCo CurryHouse, J San Ramen — I can count five different katsu houses, but they just didn’t do it like my family. Don’t get me wrong – I really like their katsu, but I wanted to share my family recipe.”
Despite the location being tucked behind a set of stairs in the Northwood Town Center, Hako — which translates to ‘box’ in Japanese — is anything but boxed in. Opened in 2018, Chun explained that business began slowly, but has exponentially increased in the years since the pandemic.
“It was a slow start in the beginning, and the pandemic really killed us. But, through hard work and perseverance – it just exploded after the pandemic,” he said.
While pandemic-caused setbacks for the restaurant industry became a living nightmare for workers and owners, Chun looks back on the situation as a blessing in disguise.
“I was forced to market, I was forced to do a lot of internet marketing – DoorDash, different portals and platforms – that really gave my restaurant a face to the rest of the world. Now, three years later, my restaurant is not 90% asian, it’s 30% asian, and the rest is white, Hispanic, African, Indian – and now if you come on a Wednesday or Thursday night – you’re going to wait about 30 minutes.”
Currently, in the process of rebranding, Hako will soon undergo a name change to Katsu House, which Chun said is more representative of the experience. In addition to rebranding, Chun said expansion is also on the horizon.
“The demand is there, everyday I have customers asking to open in their city,” he said. “I realized this food isn’t just for Asians, this food is for the world, and I think this food should be available to everyone.”
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