LONE RED lantern swings/interstate neon gleaming/hushed izakaya
Offering shared-plate fare as pretty as haiku, the flavors at MiHo Izakaya are accessible, with just enough oddness to inspire a tingle of excitement. After chewing my way through much of MiHo's menu, however, I've come to the conclusion that while everything was tasty, a tingle might be all the excitement you get.
The experience begins with a trip to the counter where you pore over the chalkboard menu divided by price (ranging from two to 10 dollars), and place your order. Then, it's the simple task of finding a comfortable table in the converted Portland bungalow, complete with fireplace and tatami room.
In terms of food, most offerings are serene and muted—the gustatory equivalent of the snow-covered garden in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill where Beatrix Kiddo faces O-Ren Ishii in a battle to the death. Except there's no clash of katana, and no real climax to be found.
Yes, there are lovely things to eat, like grilled octopus with tender slices of tentacle briefly scorched on one edge for a hint of the grill, served over celery slices and peanut oil.
In another dish, lightly pickled vegetables offer a hint of fermented funk, but remain more vegetable than pickle. Understated would be an understatement.
Sesame pork meatballs are good, but rest comfortably on their single note. They're not exactly a dynamic offering, despite being satisfying.
An ahi tuna "poke" is all about the tender tuna and a hint of citrus, just as the scallops with chili jam are more about scallop than chili heat, and kimchi and oysters puts emphasis on oyster rather than kimchi. All are well-executed meditations on fish, but lack boldness in simplicity.
Finding MiHo's boldness is like finding a full-body, fierce-eyed dragon tattoo beneath the dress shirt of a Japanese businessman.
Exploration uncovers potato and crab croquettes—three yummy little fried balls with a crisp shell and a soft center, each nestled in a pool of sauce. Bolder still are firecracker mussels offering big oceanic flavor and aggressive spice. More aggressive is spicy Napa cabbage, served warm in a thick hot sauce that sneaks up and bathes your mouth in smoldering fire.
More odd than bold is the vegan "Spam" musubi, a Hawaiian classic augmented for the veg set and one of many dishes catering to non-meat eaters. Essentially a giant fake-Spam nigri sushi, meant to be eaten by hand, MiHo does a fine job approximating the texture and flavor of a Spam slab over sushi rice, wrapped in nori. But what makes the morsel so interesting is a thick mai tai-esque sauce, with notes of pineapple, cherry, and cinnamon, set between the rice and the "Spam."
Less odd but still delectable is a plate of pork belly and sweet egg, featuring a big fatty slab of belly, run through with two skewers and passed over a fire to make it crisp and melty. The accompanying hardboiled egg glazed in crisp sugar makes the dish even richer.
Considering izakayas are built as much for drinking as they are for eating, pork belly is the kind of dish you want to put into your body before hitting the sake, which is prominent at MiHo along with a full bar and tap selection.
Post pork belly, considering the quiet flavors of MiHo's menu, I was pleased, sated, but still wanting. I'd resigned myself to having found a perfectly fine izakaya for a quiet night with friends, but nothing worth ostentation and haiku. And it would have ended there, if not for being driven into the arms of a revelation one unseasonably cold and rainy afternoon.
Kill me with ramen/a broth hazy with marrow/good charred roasted pork
Complete with whisperingly sweet springy fishcakes, a hard-boiled egg, and fresh (though not homemade) noodles, MiHo's ramen is salty and luscious, with little globules of fat glimmering on the surface of the broth. The pork pieces hidden amid the curly noodles are perfectly tender with a bit of grill char here and there to add some smoky tones. Tasting borne of patience and time (with a bit of fire to round it out), it's simple, but doesn't seem rushed. It is bold, flavorful, and satisfying enough to make you forget the lingering chills of the season.
While I might wish the whole of MiHo's menu be as strong as the ramen, there's a place in Portland for quieter izakaya fare. It'll be particularly welcome for those unfamiliar with stranger options in traditional Japanese cuisine, beyond the borders of tempura and sushi. MiHo is beautiful, welcoming, and boozy enough.
Hungry in NoPo/ready for sake and fish/go eat at MiHo