Over the past few days, I’ve become obsessed with a Japanese myth about katsudon, as related by one potentially dubious source after another. It concerns the primal power of fried pork cutlets over rice, a dish so burdened by nostalgia that detectives in Japanese crime dramas are said to use katsudon to break down a criminal’s resistance. No petty thief can apparently stand up to a mother’s love buried in each bowl.
These stories, even if apocryphal, remind me of how much cultural import can be lost in translation as we — Americans of many backgrounds — dig into dishes not of our original tribe. Just as I don’t have an Anton Ego moment when I taste ratatouille, I don’t have any associations of childhood or home when I bite into the katsudon at Donburi on 19th Street NW, the second location in chef and owner James Jang’s miniature rice-bowl kingdom. I just revel in sensuous pleasures of the pork: the semi-soggy cereal crunch of the panko, the meaty resistance underneath and the twin, indivisible comforts of salt and sweetness in the donburi sauce.
Pleasure is its own reward, of course. But as I sit in the second-floor dining room at Donburi, perched on a stool high above the street for prime people-watching, I can’t help but think of another element lost in Jang’s expansion to this 3,500-square-foot rowhouse south of Dupont Circle: The personal and performative nature of the original Donburi in Adams Morgan, a restaurant with only 14 stools, each with a view of the kitchen. The new space has the presence of an emerging superpower, a fast-casual brand just before the infusion of venture capital.
All growth involves pain, and the Donburi near Dupont is no exception. Unless you snag a stool at the counter on the main level, you must make do with a seat on one of the upper floors, pager in hand. The two-tops and communal tables on the two upper levels automatically come with a sacrifice: You will miss the high-energy, high-heat theater of the kitchen preparing and presenting your donburi. I should point out that there’s also an upside to this arrangement: You can actually make eye contact with your friends at the tables upstairs.
With more space comes more complications, and even a year into its existence, this Donburi struggles with volume. Its systems are still not tight. You can see it in the customers who line the wall, a beeper in one hand and a phone in the other, waiting for their to-go lunches on a busy Friday. You can feel it as an anxious cashier, pulling double duty as a drinks-maker, fumbles for instructions on how to pull together a basic yuzu sangria. You can occasionally taste it in the panko-coated fingers of fried shrimp, their exteriors saturated with donburi sauce from a cook who let the shellfish simmer a beat too long in the pan.
If anything can compensate for a restaurant’s operational shortcomings, it’s food complex enough to keep your mind focused on it alone. Even with the recent addition of salads, Jang’s menu remains concise. There are only eight proteins — nine if you count the spicy version of the salmon sashimi — and several can be ordered any way you like: resting atop a rice bowl, lounging next to a Japanese curry or accessorizing a mixed-greens salad bowl. If the salad option feels like a one-way ticket to Cava Town, so be it. Personally, I’d be stupid-happy to have a Donburi in my ’hood.
Jang has tinkered with his approach to donburi since my visits to the shop in Adams Morgan more than four years ago. He’s altered his ratios for the signature sauce, searching for that bliss point between too salty and too bland. He’s even altered how his crews cook the toppings: They now put the egg on the bottom of the ladlelike donburi pan, which protects the toppings from becoming soggy with sauce. (It also tends to overcook the egg, depriving you of that silky yolk custard, the secondary sauce of any donburi.)
Despite the lack of theater, despite the occasionally overcooked egg, despite a yuzu frozen sake so watery the kitchen refused to serve it to me, I still couldn’t wait to return to Donburi for every one of my visits. There is something inexplicably homey about these rice bowls, and they don’t even have to be topped with tonkotsu, those panko-flaked lengths of pork.
I melt right along with the caramelized sections of barbecued unagi, or freshwater eel, so sweet and tender they disappear with barely any assistance from my jaw. I detect just enough soy (and is that ginger?) in the thinly sliced rib-eye, the topping for the gyudon, to disrupt my momentary fantasy of calling this the Japanese cheesesteak of donburi. And although I could barely detect a single Scoville Unit of heat on my spicy salmon — at least without a swab of fresh wasabi — I hardly cared: These fatty slabs don’t need the sting of a chile pepper to warm my heart.
I have nothing against Jang’s salads. With their yuzu-soy vinaigrette and golden raisins, they’re clearly engineered for a gymnastic balance. His curries are admirable, too, in their rush of surly aromatics that still allow the star protein to have its say. But if I walk into Donburi, no matter the location, I’m going to order a bowl of donburi, maybe the karaagedon or the unagidon or, yes, the katsudon. I don’t know about you, but at this time and in this city, I embrace all the comforts I can find. Even if they’re comforts borrowed from a culture other than mine.
1134 19th St. NW, 202-296-7941, donburidc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Farragut North, Farragut West or Dupont Circle, with less than a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4 to $6 for sides; $9.95 to $18 for salads, curries and donburi.