Funabashi is the lesser known last name of a woman whose first name is legend to Portland sushi lovers: Yoko.
For 30 years, Funabashi has been the person you’ll see most nights behind the counter at her eponymous restaurant, her dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail as she crafts orders of iconic seared albacore sashimi and Walla Walla rolls filled with sweet and flavorful tempura fried onion.
If you’re in the know, this unassuming hole-in-the-wall on a largely untraveled stretch of Southeast Gladstone is a cozy haven of sushi done just right: it’s not the expensive splurge of Nodoguro or even Nimblefish, but it’s also not the cream cheese and mayonnaise explosion of down market spots either. It’s just kind of perfect.
Just thinking about the restaurant’s logo, a pufferfish with the head of a sumo wrestler (which gets used on everything from sake cups to plates to pens), makes me smile.
Open for four hours daily, Yoko’s waitlist fills up quickly with regulars and those of us kind enough to let you know about our favorite spot. (I recently took a date, and another food writer texted me that “it must be getting serious.”)
Yoko, now 52, says she learned to make sushi in Los Angeles at age 18—right after she moved there from Tokyo. She trained with an all Japanese staff before moving to Bend to open the first Yoko’s in 1989.
“At the time, people couldn’t believe we were opening a Japanese restaurant in the middle of central Oregon, and then a local newspaper wrote an article saying, ‘This sushi bar may fail,’” Yoko tells me. “We opened and were super busy from day one.”
After four years, Yoko said she wanted a bigger city, so she moved to Portland, first operating out of a converted home at NW 23rd and Glisan before landing in her current spot in 1997.
I’ve been a semi-regular since high school (about 20 years, OH GOD), and there are certain dishes I cherish and order each time. The agedashi tofu ($8.50)—cubes of tofu crispy fried in rice flour before being submerged in a sweet-savory sauce fortified with mushrooms and green onions—arrives piping hot. Even after all these years, I always burn my mouth after being too impatient to get at it.
The seared albacore sashimi or nigiri ($18.50, $6.50) are perfect bites of local fish spiked with pepper. The scallops on the nigiri are always soft and light, and the poki roll ($13.50) is a flavorful rainbow of ahi and albacore draped atop a roll with avocado and cucumber inside.
But the real secret of Yoko’s is the most iconic sushi dish in town: Taka’s tuna ($10.50). I could wax poetic for hours if you let me. It’s a mountain of spicy ahi tuna piled atop avocado and a patty of rice fried into the shape and texture of a McDonald’s hash brown. I love seeing the face of anyone I bring for the first time as they first poke gingerly at the massive construction with chopsticks, before abandoning utensil and pretense and using their hands. Rife with texture, sesame, chili oil flavors, and overall wonder, it’s by far the most popular dish the restaurant sells, says Yoko.
“Taka is my friend from LA who taught me how to make sushi,” she says. “He created that and told me when I open a sushi bar in Portland, ‘You should do this dish, it’s going to do so well.’”
A few dishes Yoko recommends: the salmon and chili roll, which lives forever on the specials board, comes with shishito pepper inside and salmon on top. (“It’s so popular we can’t take it off,” she explains.) The lotus special—deep fried lotus root slices topped with seared albacore and poke sauce—is another underrated hit.
Even after all this time, Yoko says she still sees folks from her original Bend location, as well as regulars from the Northwest 23rd spot. She’s watched families grow up.
“[I watched] one customer dating, who then had a kid. Now that kid brings their boyfriend here,” she says. “It’s like a generational thing.”
Yoko takes a few nights a week off nowadays, letting long-term staff handle operations. She says she plans to stay with the restaurant for at least four or five more years.
“I was so young back then, and now I’m the oldest,” she says, laughing. “I’m really lucky to have a good crew. They’ve been working a really long time with me. I like working a lot. I don’t mind it.”