BEING ALL THINGS to all people tends to make for mediocrity. I'm always pleased when someone takes it upon themselves to do just one thing, and proceeds to do it really, really well. Portland seems pretty blessed with this type of personality. When I crave french fries, they come from someone who just makes french fries (in fact, our food cart renaissance is built on this very concept). When I wanted a classically tailored suit, I went to a shop that does just that. If I have a rarified socket, I can get any light bulb in the world—and exactly nothing else—from that bulb lady on North Mississippi.
I didn't know I wanted kalé rice a couple weeks ago, but now that I do, I know where to go for that and only that.
Kalé—a welcome addition to Goose Hollow's mostly blasé restaurant options—has three items on the menu: Kalé Rice with Beef (presumably the staple—the menu flat out says, "We Suggest You Order This"), Kalé Rice Original (the vegetarian option), and Kalé Doria (either of the above topped with cheddar and/or mozzarella cheese, seasoned with paprika, then baked for about 10 minutes). Restricting your options even further, the latter is limited to only 10 portions per day.
If you see any of this as a negative, you're missing the point. From 11 am-2 pm and 6-9:30 pm, owner Makoto Yoshino—with the help of just one employee at any given time—is able to serve up a single, more or less perfect dish for six or seven bucks, about what you'd spend for a meal at Burgerville. So what is his perfect dish?
You'll receive more than enough background on kalé rice when you get to the counter—either direct from the owner's mouth, or from the brochures he's printed up (the history of this style of cooking, its nutritional value... quite a bit of paperwork considering the scope of the menu). The truncated version is that it's a Japanese curry; a traditional comfort food that, according to Yoshino's pamphlets, is eaten an average of 84 times a year by Japanese people. Your order comes served in a shallow bowl, half of which is consumed by a slightly sticky white rice, and the other half with curry.
If you're used to Thai or Indian varieties, however, that word might be a bit of a misnomer. The consistency is more like a thick stew. The onions, carrots, and tomatoes are pureed for a thicker sauce; the larger chunks of vegetables and meat are absent. The flavor is rich and savory, with just a little bit of a kick. As the menu suggests, the beef option has a more substantial, rounded flavor, but—for whatever reason—the vegetarian option comes through with a little more spice.
You can customize your meal a little bit. For a dollar more, add fukujin zuke (pickles made to complement the dish), cheese (supposedly takes the edge off, for those less inclined to fiery food), hardboiled egg, or spinach. So not quite Vegas-buffet options, but it's something.
The sake list—perhaps unsurprisingly—isn't particularly vast, but there are a couple beers and wines to choose from as well.
Maybe Yoshino's ideas about minimalism don't start and stop with the menu, but even so, the space itself is a little confounding. The restaurant is housed in a nondescript building—nondescript if you ignore the large flat-screen TV in the window that serves as their open/closed sign—that, from the street, could easily be the dentist's office I once went to when I had no insurance. The front of the house is sparse, and set up café style—a handful of tables, a couch, a fireplace—which makes more sense when you get to the back room and realize that, during the afternoon, Yoshino shares the space with a coffee shop. While I ate my lunch, a cluster of about 10 (presumably) Lincoln High School students took up half the chairs with maybe two cups of coffee and a bagel between them. No one seemed to mind, but I can foresee problems if and when an afternoon rush hits.
The place is nothing high concept, nothing fancy, but it is inviting. If they get that fireplace going for the next few months, I anticipate spending a lot of my cold, blustery, shitty Portland lunch hours in that strange little restaurant for a perfect winter meal.