IF EVERY OBJECTIVIST I've ever encountered decided to take their heroic skills and ideals and smug faces and follow John Galt to his little free-market utopia, I doubt society would be much the worse for it. But if Janis Martin—proprietor of Tanuki and vocal Ayn Rand disciple—were to tag along, the motor of my world just might stop. For a few months, it seemed that government bureaucracy really was going to rob Portlanders of one our great treasures; Tanuki—the attitude-heavy izakaya that moved out of its tiny dwellings on NW 21st early last year—was slated to reopen in the old Belly space on NE MLK, but was foiled by OLCC red tape. Well, finally I can peel the Ron Paul sticker off my car and stop reading the goddamn Fountainhead. Tanuki has been reborn.
The Montavilla storefront that once housed Immortal Pie and Larder has been transformed into a dive bar like no other. Sure, it's dark, it has some strange odors wafting about, and the guy slapping the pinball machine looks like he's had a few too many; it looks a little more Holman's than Momofuku. But don't be fooled... this is thoughtful, well-crafted, and outstanding food.
If you missed Tanuki's first iteration, the menu is a mix of Korean and Japanese cooking styles, but it all falls under the umbrella of drinking food. It ranges from smaller snacks like edamame or squid jerky to entrée-sized plates of pork belly or kimchee-fried rice. Prices range anywhere from $2 to $10, but if you're smart (or indecisive), you'll give yourself a break and order omakase. Simply tell your server how much money you want to spend per head, and let Martin cook for you (some caveats: everyone at your table must participate, and they don't split checks. Service is good, but not particularly accommodating to whiners and assholes). You can spend anywhere from $15 to $30 (though that figure can change a bit depending on what is or isn't available on a given night), and plates will come out as they're ready.
On my most recent visit, my date and I decided to spend $20 each, and left happily bloated. While a Japanese horror movie about a giant murderous hand played above the bar, plate after perfect plate arrived. First off were oversized bowls of lemony, salted edamame and Martin's special house-made kimchee. We snacked as we took down our first tokkuri of sake. Next came four quail eggs served in a shallow saucer of spicy cinnamon tea and a warm cauliflower and brussels sprouts salad, followed by a croissant filled with cheese, bacon, and kimchee.
When we ordered a second flask of sake, our server brought us each a perfect Netarts oyster on the half shell topped with kimchee shaved ice (come summer, I'd eat a paper cone filled with the stuff). Next up was a large seaweed salad with cucumber, lotus, and a pungent vinegary dressing, and four crab claws in a spicy ginger sauce. Our little two-top was more or less full, but the server was able to find room for a plate of sliced hamachi and all the accompaniments for hand rolls. My stomach was already telling me to slow down, but that clearly wasn't communicated to the kitchen. Out came a generous slab of some of the softest, most delicate pork belly I've ever eaten, served over rice with a sharp, spicy mustard. Then an overflowing bowl of tan tan—udon noodles in a chicken and peanut sauce that were very spicy and oh so delicious. Last and far from least, a hearty portion of kimchee-marinated hanger steak, served rare over rice and braised greens. I just don't know that you can do better for $20 a person.
One of the upgrades in the new space is the full bar—this is drinking food, and all that salt and spice ought to be accompanied by a good cold beverage. There's a great selection of sake, and impressive list of cocktails. And in true dive bar fashion, you can lay down $4 and get a shot of sake and a can of beer in return.
Stateside, for the most part, izakayas tend to feel a little slick, and a little stylish. They're bars the way our gastropubs are taverns. Tanuki feels like a bar that just so happens to have food you want to eat. If you're looking for the dining experience of Wafu or Biwa—and there's no shame in that—go to Wafu or Biwa. But if you're fine with a place that's a little rough around the edges, you can't do better than Tanuki.