IT'S NEARLY HAPPY hour at the Nob Hill izakaya Tanuki. The goat's been roasted, and the hamachi delivered. A Japanese noren door curtain (essentially a panel of printed fabric split down the center) hides the back-room kitchen where ingredients line tables and fill refrigerators. Owner and Chef Janis Martin has been preparing since six in the morning. It's very hot and very humid, but Martin is at home here.
She stands at a table topped with containers filled with pungent and exotic items like pickled lotus roots, Korean fried fish and cuttlefish jerky, kimchi, and a nest of Japanese sun-dried chili threads. She motions to a large bottle of fresh unpasteurized white soy sauce. "That's what I use on the hamachi," she says. "Most places it's just prohibitively expensive. But it's the right thing for the fish so I take a little bit of a loss."
Martin says Tanuki's limited potential for profit, at 16 seats, is improved by low overhead. She admits that the chairs may be uncomfortable and, much like "ladies of a certain age," the dining room looks better in the dark, but the food and drinks are of unflinching quality.
"So you're going to sit on a shitty chair," she says. "But you're going to have great soy. That's the trade-off we have here."
It's a trade-off that's garnered Tanuki a cultish following, and as happy hour starts, the faithful begin to arrive. In the kitchen, tickets are stuck to loops of masking tape wrapped sticky side outward around the glass door of a cooler. Martin reads them off to herself and circles her kitchen, quickly building the small dishes as she moves.
Beneath a ghostly photocopied photograph of Lindsay Lohan sits a two-burner hot plate, and a conventional electric griddle on which Martin prepares much of her menu. Tanuki is all about resourcefulness. However, Martin builds menus that are more and more difficult to accomplish given her limited resources.
"When it's busy, it's pretty insane," she says. "That question, 'Am I going to pull this off or is it going to be a hideous failure?' is always up in the air. I actually like that kind of stress." She smiles. "Otherwise, idle hands and devil's playground, and next thing you know, I'm off wandering the streets."
Martin makes it sound as if kitchens have saved us all from her devious mind. She's been enthralled by cooking since her first job at an Italian joint in Cleveland, Ohio, when the chef mystique prompted her to drop out of high school to pursue cooking; a pursuit that's taken her through top kitchens in the US and New Zealand.
Though Martin's den of drinking food is far from the polite excess of fine dining, it is indelibly her own. And like Martin, Tanuki can be obnoxious, profane, wry, and inspired.
Sure, things could be changed to suit sensitive guests, but it wouldn't be "The 'Nuki" and it wouldn't be Janis Martin, who at 35 is realizing her dream to "do the best food I can for the lowest price I can."
Some find Martin abrasive and her food too brash. Others seek out the noisy dining room for the direct culinary dialogue of omakase. Very loosely translated as "it's up to you," ordering omakase allows patrons to set their price and the chef to create a multi-course meal to fit that price. Up to 70 percent of a night's orders at Tanuki will be omakase.
Around 7:30 pm, an omakase ticket is slapped up on the tape. Martin questions the server.
"How many are there?" Four. "How old are they?" Two adults in their 40s, two kids in their teens. "What are they drinking?" Nothing, yet.
She begins working. After each plate is garnished, she bellows out "Serve please!" in strange, low voice. A server responds—"Coming through!"—flicking aside the noren. A plate of halved crawfish is sent out to the family, and soon Martin enquires how it's been received. The answer will change the course of the meal. More adventurous or less?
As she plans the next course for the family, more orders come in. It's nearly 9 pm. Martin is unfazed. The problem is, with only a hotplate and a griddle, things can quickly turn into a "banquet of jackassery."
No matter. Eventually the dining room will fill, as will a waiting list, and Martin will truly be in her element: another night alone in her kitchen, pushing herself. Every moment a potential careening disaster, but every dish more delicious for the effort.
When Janis Martin has time to catch breakfast, she'll often go to HA & VL (2738 SE 82nd). "It's just really well made and really well crafted," says Martin. The Vietnamese family that runs the restaurant focuses on noodle soups, not your average Western breakfast.More of the FOOD ISSUE here!