EXPLORING ANY ethnic cuisine can be intimidating. There are challenges surrounding language, pronunciation, etiquette, and new, interesting flavors. Taking an expedition into the flavors of another culture can sometimes lead to disaster. At best, you'll find a new favorite dish; at worst, you'll be forever haunted by textures and tastes for which you were completely unprepared.
While sushi is arguably the most popular subset of Japanese cuisine among Americans, the island has produced myriad unique dishes (and taken the dishes of other cultures and made them indelibly their own). So how does a sushi lover transition from California rolls to fish kasuzuke (fish pickled in the leftovers of sake production, or lees)? Simple: Find a guide.
Writer and NPR contributor Andy Raskin lost his gallbladder after conquering a legendary, intensely fatty bowl of ramen at a tiny Tokyo restaurant called Ramen Jiro (a brief escapade he chronicles in his funny and brutally honest memoir The Ramen King and I). That's who you want for a guide. A survivor.
Sitting in the VIP lounge at Wordstock, the oxygen bar bubbling away behind him, Raskin explained that in Japan there is much more specificity when it comes to dining out. "There's tempura restaurants where the guy's a total expert on tempura. That's all they do, and it's all been passed down." Ramen Jiro? Only ramen.
But in America, Raskin notes, Japanese restaurants have much more of a mixture of foods. That makes it particularly easy to use sushi as a kind of gateway drug.
Raskin suggests that the curious start out by looking beyond nigiri and maki rolls. "A lot of sushi restaurants have a lot of cooked dishes on the menu," he says. "Try some of the appetizers that often in Japan you'd never find in a sushi restaurant."
In particular, he enjoys buta kakuni—pork belly that has been simmered for a long time until it's incredibly soft—also, the aforementioned fish kazuke, which is often grilled, resulting in what Raskin characterizes as an "incredible, sort of slightly sake-ish, slightly sweet flavor."
More familiar to the American palate, Raskin suggests, will be yakitori dishes, a term that refers specifically to skewered grilled chicken, but is used to encompass any manner of skewered, grilled meats.
"There's so many variations," Raskin says. "The typical yakitori is chicken and scallions, but then there are pork ones, bacon ones, asparagus, all the vegetables, meatball ones... some restaurants get very creative."
Of course there's also ramen. Unlike instant ramen (whose creator Momofuku Ando inspired Raskin's book), Raskin likens the real stuff to pizza, whose devotees argue the merits of its individual ingredients, like crust, sauce, and toppings. For ramen the magic lies in broth, noodles, and, well, toppings.
Raskin believes good ramen hinges on broth. "My favorite kind of ramen broth is tonkotsu," he says, explaining that it's made from pig bones that have been boiled until the collagen is extracted, making the broth slightly gelatinous. "Usually it has slices of pork on top, and menma—which are slices of marinated bamboo—and yuzu [a Japanese citrus fruit] shavings that cut the broth."
As you immerse yourself in Japanese food, your palate will likely become more adventurous. The now well-versed Raskin craves shiokara. "It's squid fermented in its own gut sack," he explains. "It is fantastic."
Go Eat Here:
Yuzu, 4130 SW 117th, Beaverton, 350-1801 Yuzu is a great little place to get good ramen, sushi, and sashimi for cheap. It's a small dive and packed with regulars, so those in the know should get reservations. Bonus: Yuzu is near Uwajimaya, the area's best Asian grocery store. DAVE BOW
Biwa, 215 SE 9th, 239-8830 Biwa has a nice selection of no-frills, high-quality Japanese cuisine, including delicious vegan and vegetarian alternatives for many of their dishes. The atmosphere is slick and simple, and the noodles are made in house. DB
Tanuki, 413 NW 21st, 241-7667 Tanuki is the rare Japanese bar that offers much more than raw fish and rice. With pork belly, oysters, fresh kimchee, and cheap, cheap sake, it's like walking into a Tokyo corner bar. Just replace the salary men with Portland's young and hip. DB
Yakuza Lounge, 5411 NE 30th, 450-0893 Treat yourself like a high-level Japanese gangster and get some Kobe beef or lamb tsukune at Yakuza. Just go easy on their famous seasonal produce before ordering hits and starting a gang war you'll regret. DB
Bamboo Sushi, 310 SE 28th, 232-5335 The food quality is great, but the real thing that makes Bamboo headline worthy is their status as the first US sushi restaurant to be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Love fish, but hate unscrupulous fishing? This is your place. DB