With the tapas-inspired small plate revolution creeping across North America, it's fitting that another small plate phenomenon, the Japanese izakaya, should emerge. Izakaya translates loosely to "a place that serves sake." And not only sake, but also food to inspire sake consumption. Popular among Vancouver, BC, youth, and in underground niches of New York City, izakaya has found Portland's Alphabet District in the form of Tanuki. It's about damn time.
Mythically, tanuki is a shape-shifting troublemaker. His raccoon-like figure is often found at the entrances of Japanese sake emporiums with a flask of sake in one hand, a bill that he never pays in the other, and a rotund belly that hovers over enormous testicles. In pursuit of drink and women, he's been known to turn leaves into money and horse dung into a tasty meal.
Someone should tell him it's easier to make a tasty meal using seasonal, local ingredients. At least, this is the philosophy of the ballsy little restaurant that bears his name.
The small dishes that emerge from Tanuki's kitchen are diverse and surprising, ranging from kare raisu, a chicken curry favored by Japanese truckers that feels like a warm internal hug, to the elegant gyunikku, luscious Cascade Natural beef skewers. The small dining room is fairly unadorned, meant for two distinct activities: drinking sake and eating. In that respect Tanuki is as efficient as a Japanese automobile plant. In true izakaya form, sake selections rival food selections in variety and gumption. No need to know anything about sake to enjoy the diverse list; the staff is knowledgeable and willing to set you on your journey.
Whereas Western restaurants pair drink with food, at Tanuki, the opposite's true. Sake conditions the palate with umami (that elusive "fifth flavor" hovering somewhere between bitter and salty on the back of the tongue) as well as other subtle flavors that tie into Tanuki's robust cuisine. The result is a dynamic, drunken dining experience.
An example of this occurs beautifully with manju yakibuta, braised and fried pork belly with smoked Japanese fish sauce, shredded and piled into a steamed bun. The morsels are tender and meaty. Slowly, an overpowering saltiness begins to create an entirely new flavor beyond salt. It's almost uncomfortable. But instinct pushes the hand to the sake cup. Suddenly, the saltiness spins itself out into constituent flavors that are sweet and flowery, as sake mellows the strong insistence of the salt.
Not everything on the menu is so bold. A scallop skewer, miso hotate, holds perfectly sweet and tender shellfish. Kappa maguro shiro tataki, a mound of raw spicy white tuna with cucumber salad, is light on the tongue with hints of sesame. Little bits of salmon and flying fish roe add interesting texture and bursts of saltiness to the dish. Some might blanch at the $11 price tag for the palm-sized portion, but it's worth it and easily shared.
Chef Janis Martin appears to have an astounding variety of Japanese morsels in her repertoire. Tanuki's menu changes daily, which means that every trip there is unique.
Move over, tapas, there's a new game in town. This could be the first round of an izakaya cult uprising in Portland, led by a furry, inebriated trickster with humongous balls.