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May 1, 2017

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Food review: Katsu Black Curry at Tonghua Night Market

I stumbled onto this lovely Japanese curry house tucked away in a Tonghua Night Market alley this week. Not a lot of people seem to notice the small shop; the dark, nearly illegible sign on the main street seems deliberately low-key, more ornamental than functional in purpose. But Dengaku curry house has gained plenty of fanfare from locals, particularly university students, since it opened in September last year.

Small wonder it's such a hit — the rich, unmistakable smell of curry rice lures you down the alleyway and one bite of the black curry gets you hooked.

Dengaku's signature Hamburger Steak Black Curry (NT$200) pairs a generous serving of Japanese sushi rice with an incredibly juicy, succulent hamburger steak that makes your mouth water. Whereas Indian curry tends to be more smoky and spicy, this black curry is savory-sweet and full-flavored: the layers of subtly different tastes are crafted through a homemade paste made of caramelized onions, 10 spices and squid ink.

The result is a soulful curry sauce that is thick, smooth and black. The taste is closer to authentic Japanese curry than most I have tried in Taipei, where a lot of curry rice is either too watery or too bland. This bowl-licking curry will transport you to Japan — perhaps to a cozy, unpretentious joint reminiscent of Joji Matsuoka's "Midnight Diner."

The minimal vegetables — with only one steamed broccoli florets as the side — also lean toward Japanese-style portions: Taiwanese restaurants tend to put more emphasis on a "balanced meal," serving up Japanese meals with more vegetables for nutrition.

The owner also recommends their latest tonkatsu (NT$230), or deep-fried pork cutlet, as a meat option. It's a pretty good deal since they serve a massive slice of tonkatsu — the huge piece of pork cutlet enveloped by steaming hot curry rice is bound to make you break into a big smile. I haven't tried these yet, but their beef curry rice (NT$150) and pork yellow curry rice (NT$130) start at more affordable prices, and are even cheaper for take out.

I was already pleased enough with the place, and finding that it serves a wide range of Japanese sake and both Taiwanese and Japanese beer starting from NT$100 was the topper.

It's a happy thing that curry has made its way onto the tables around the planet. The well-traveled dish has been adapted and blended with local tastes, making it one of the world's most-loved soul foods. My first curry experience was a homemade meal cooked with Japan's House-brand curry cubes — my mother used to dice up carrots into tiny slices and throw them in with the beef and potatoes, so my siblings and I couldn't pick out the veggie. Now, a decade and a half later, the excitement I get when the tantalizing aroma of curry hits hasn't changed one bit.

Key takeaways:

► An easy-to-miss gem

► Serves up sinfully good curry made from scratch, with love

Dengaku Black Curry House 田樂黑咖哩

► No. 11, Lane 40, Linjiang Street, Daan District, Taipei City 大安區臨江街40巷11號

► Open midday to 2 p.m., 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays

► (02) 2388-5233

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