Bhugay's Katsu Curry. I first noticed this hole-in-the-wall back in November, while riding my bike home from Umami Mart. Located on 14th Street at Jefferson, in Downtown Oakland, its beguiling, decidedly non-Japanese name had me wondering. A little Googling led to more information: Bhugay's Katsu Curry was opened last September by a chef-owner named Bhugay, who also runs Bhugay's Sushi To Go on Clay Street in Oakland City Center. As its name suggests, Bhugay's Katsu Curry specializes in deep fried meat cutlets smothered in Japanese curry sauce. This week, I finally decided to stop in to give it a try.
My first impression: Bhugay's lived up to my expectations of being a no-frills, counter service-style spot. But it's way bigger inside than I thought it would be. A few window-side tables are found near the front, for those who insist on dining with a view... of 14th Street. But there's also a second-floor dining area, accessed from the back. On my visit, I saw a man in business attire pecking away at a laptop on the second floor while eating his lunch. In fact, most of the customers looked like City Center professionals on break, in ties and button-ups, blouses and heels.
Let's face it, the ambiance left something to be desired, but I was charmed by the menu, which boasts a variety of curry variations with spirited names, including Go Warriors Katsu Curry (deep fried fish with curry over rice), Paul Robertson Katsu Curry (deep fried pork with curry over rice), and Bhugays Special Meatball Katsu Curry (deep fried beef meatball with curry over rice). There's also chicken teriyaki, ramen, tempura, and several Chinese-style stir-fried items over rice. Most worthy of noting – there's also a small selection of Tibetan food items. So, that explains the non-Japanese name! The Tibetan specialties include momo (steamed or deep fried Tibetan dumplings) and shabhaley (deep fried dumplings stuffed with beef).
I was intrigued by the Tibetan dumplings, but I was there for katsu curry. Not being overly hungry, I decided against a big rice plate and opted for the Katsu Burger, which you can get with a breaded and deep-fried chicken, pork, or beef cutlet. I ordered pork, and about 10 minutes later, was handed a to-go box with my meal inside. Since it was a beautiful day in Oakland, I decided to eat al fresco at the peaceful Swan's Market courtyard, just a few blocks away. Sitting down at a shaded picnic table, I opened my to-go container and saw this:
Well, it's not the prettiest thing, is it? But what matters most is taste, right? Anyway, at $4.99 I wasn't expecting a culinary work of art, so I was forgiving. I lifted the toasted sesame seed bun to figure out what was going on inside. A wipe of curry sauce topped a thin, crispy, squared-off pork cutlet. Underneath the pork was a ungenerous bed of slaw, made with cabbage, carrots, and weirdly, romaine lettuce. A slather of some kind of spiced mayo painted the bottom bun.
Initially, I was disappointed by the spare amount of curry sauce on the burger, but upon tasting, it was actually just the right portion of curry to katsu. Any more sauce would have been too messy to eat in hand-held form. The rich, thick curry was flavorful – not overly spicy, but with a touch of heat, which echoed in my belly even hours after my meal. There were visible flecks of carrot, potato, and meat in the sauce – kind of like you'd find in a store-bought curry donut. Meanwhile, the katsu patty was perfectly fried – not too oily and not dry or stringy, like I expected it might be for such a thinly-sliced cutlet. The pork, while fried to order, was not breaded to order; I spied Bhugay pull a pre-breaded patty from the freezer. I'm perfectly fine with that for a cheap, fast meal. Together, with the crunchy, slightly acidic slaw and the creamy mayo, all the ingredients in the Katsu Burger created a harmonious textural and flavor combination. It tasted good!
The verdict: The Katsu Burger is not a visual delight, but it's a solid, fast, and affordable lunch. Next time, I'll try the momo and shabhaley.
Bhugay's Katsu Curry
578 14th St
Oakland, CA 94612
Still hungry? Check out Kayoko's guide to her favorite restaurants in nearby Oakland Chinatown.