Maneki Neko Express (aka Maneki Arlington): 3813 Lee Hwy, Arlington, VA 22207; www.mneko.com
We’ve been coming here for a few years, usually for the great okonomiyaki and interesting specials. Today, the specials are Green Tea Cheese Cake, Green Tea Shortcake, and Lobster Miso Soup. We ordered online for pickup so missed out on those. Other recent specials have included Kobe Gyoza and Saba Shioyaki (which they spelled “Chioyaki,” but either way it’s grilled mackerel). The Kobe Gyoza is fried (not steamed), and are gone pretty quickly. It’s not really Kobe beef, of course, and neither is most beef marketed in the U.S. as being from Kobe, being instead a mix of Wagyu and Angus. We read “Kobe Gyoza” as a harmless marketing ploy and just enjoy our fried beef dumplings. They’re so good we wish there was one or two more for the price. The unagi sushi are likewise delicious, with generous cuts of eel.
The menu contains some other items that are unusual for a Japanese place, like Oxtail Soup and Duck Ramen, which we haven’t gotten around to yet. Likewise the Super Dragon Roll is on our target list — yes, it’s real (canned) crab, not kani. And speaking of curries, in addition to chicken and tonkatsu (fried pork) curries, they also offer two Thai varieties: Massaman and Panang.
The menu is also curious for what it lacks: no chicken katsu curry; they do it broiled, not breaded and fried. We ask if we can order it as katsu off-menu, and like most questions we ask in life, this one is met with great confusion…
“Yes,” says the waitress (who may also be the manager) — they can fry the chicken.
“No,” says the chef, explaining that it’s something to do with white meat.
“You don’t fry white chicken meat?,” we ask.
“No,” he says with a smile.
This is sort of confusing, because katsu is short for katsuretsu (cutlet), and chicken cutlets are typically breast cuts — white meat — rather than thigh cuts (dark meat). The white-meat chicken they serve probably originated as a breast cut, but in any case it’s not clear why they don’t fry breasts (or wings) but only drumsticks, thighs, and (white-meat) pork cutlets. We’ll try not to let our total confusion spoil National Curried Chicken Day.
As mentioned, our favorite here is the okonomiyaki, generously topped with namesake (okonomi) sauce, spicy mayo, bonito flakes and pickled red ginger. This is a Japanese comfort/street food — best enjoyed with a Sapporo at a tiny restaurant or food stall in Gotanda, in our opinion — that you just don’t see on too many local menus.
We usually visit Maneki Neko Express during prime-time hours — lunch or early dinner — but have never seen more than one or two other diners. So we hope this place, with its interesting menu option and authentic Japanese “feel,” thrives here. Even if they don’t fry chicken cutlets. It’s worth checking out, and if you’re not sure what to get there’s always the Undecided Roll.
♦ See our original recipe for National Curried Chicken Day last year. It’s Japanese, too: Chicken Katsu Curry.
♦ More on the Kobe question, including a list of the country’s eight certified Kobe beef restaurants.
♦ There’s also a Maneki Neko in Falls Church (see link at top).
♦ Beckoning cat for good luck