Every time I step foot into Tanuki, my basic perception of what a sake bar should be takes on a drastic tectonic shift. Truthfully, I'm hard pressed to even describe the cuisine, which I'm eager to do with anyone within earshot. Upscale izakaya? Japanese tapas through a Northwest lens? No matter how I try, Tanuki continues to defy description as well as challenge my own expectations, but in a good way. Every time I step foot into Tanuki, it gets better.
Like its shapeshifting spirit namesake, Tanuki's menu changes daily. It wouldn't be accurate to call it an evolving menu, because that would imply a sort of linear trend. No, it would actually be more apt to describe the menu as more of a reflection of the chef's whimsy. Items appear, disappear and reappear, and I've found the best approach is to steady yourself with a familiar dish when you can.
One such dish for me is the uni onigiri, a dish that's simple in design but oh so decadent in result. A riff on the rice ball (a staple of izakaya cuisine), the onigiri features swift touches of Japanese red pepper to give the rice just enough heat. The real star, though, is the sea urchin housed within. With its custardy consistency and deep flavor, this is one of my easy favorites, a compass star that helps me navigate the menu.
Another great baseline would be any preparation involving rafutei, which is pork belly braised in Okinawan wine (awamori). Moreso than your usual pork belly dish, the braise imparts a whole new dimension of flavor on top of the familiar rich and meaty tastes of pork. At Tanuki, you might find it with noodles, on a skewer, or in a salad. No matter the preparation, the rafutei is bound to please, and in fact it's been quite a treat to see its versatility.
Once you've got your baseline, then it's time to start exploring. Duck wings in spicy chili sauce! Fermented soy on toast! Eel with pickled egg!
Because I'm the type of diner that geeks out of flavors I've never had before, it's quite evident why I'm in love with Tanuki. It escapes the bounds of typical pub faire, even in a cuisine as rich and complex as Japanese.
The dish that one me over, though, at first glance and at first bite was the okonomiyaki. I joke that all of my favorite foods are either served in a bowl, or served on a pancake, and this certainly bears the latter truth out. Expertly griddled, the okonomiyaki offers a savory take on the batter arts, providing a great vehicle for humble yet firm flavors such as escolar or bay shrimp (and once I even saw pulled pork there; that menu item has not yet returned).
Moreso than the flavor, it's due to the dish's rarity that caught my eye. There isn't a restaurant serving okonomiyaki within hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. Serving it on a menu is a feat onto itself, and the fact that it's done so expertly just gilds the lily.
Every time I walk out of Tanuki, I think about my past experiences in the loud, smoky, boisterous bowels of Japanese izakayas (and the close Korean cousin, the sojubang). Tanuki isn't offering to replace them, just offer a new twist on a style of restaurant that was already among my favorites. I now realize that bar food can be so much more, and probably is if I looked hard enough. Luckily I don't have to look that hard. Every time I walk out of Tanuki, I can't wait to walk back in.
413 NW 21st Ave, Portland, OR 97209
Okonomiyaki! Ah, I didn't realize there were any places in Portland that did them. I'm just back from NYC where Otafuku was a favorite of mine and thought that the only way I could get okonomiyaki was to make it myself. Thanks for the rec! Now, I don't suppose you know of a place that also does good takoyaki?
I just heard that Tanuki has procured an appropriately sized aebelskiver pan and takoyaki will be showing up soon. I cannot wait! Nothing says drunk food quite like fried batter!
I visit Portland from the east coast every month or so for work and generally admire the restaurant scene here. Over the last three years, I’ve watched it develop into a true dining destination. However, even with my frequent travels here and to lots of other places, I can’t recall being as impressed and excited about a restaurant after just one visit as I am after my dinner at Tanuki last night.
Always up for a new place to eat, I visit this board every once in a while and noticed the recent very favorable posts on Tanuki. Being a big fan of Japanese food, it seemed like an easy choice. I’m so glad I went. The chef/owner, Janis Martin, has created a special place to eat and drink. I had (and loved it all):
- Oysters on the half shell in a light ponzu sauce.
- Scallop miso soup with dungeness crab. I could eat this every day.
- Unagi on a stick.
- Hamachi onigiri. Chopped yellowtail in rice, with a quail’s eqq on top, and roe on the side. Very satisfying.
- Steak salad. Nice slices of medium rare skirt steak, greens, with fresh sweet corn and delicious and delicately sliced mushrooms, and some home-made fermented soy “dressing” on top. This should be a signature dish; this plate was fine dining.
My serving of sake, including a round of namazake, complemented the meal perfectly.
Tanuki’s prices are very affordable (see the sample menu on the web-site), making it easy to order several items. Although I was dining alone last night (well, I sat at the counter and spent a lot of time talking with Janis and Kenna), Tanuki would be a great place to go with a group of friends.
Janis said that starting next week, she’s introducing a late-night menu and daily specials. And I read on this board that takoyaki is coming. I wish her the best of luck with Tanuki, and encourage you local Portlanders to dine there and make her successful. I only wish my trips to Portland were more often, so I could become a true regular customer.
so glad you enjoyed Tanuki, NJ!
I am a regular here and was in last night as well, just a little later then you probably. I always find something that blows me away when i go to Tanuki. Last night was the beef onglet salad w/ fermented soy dressing. I thought it was a very good salad, but with the japanese mustard condiment on the side it made it utterly ethereal! I am starting to get jaded i think about restaurants and i blame Tanuki!. menu changes 2 or more times a week? well of course!
perfectly balanced flavors that pair seemlessly with your sake?duh!!
a chef that would rather not make a dish if even the most miniscule ingredient isnt at its best!? yes again.
hopefully you get a chance to come back to portland when the weather is a little more affable to the okonimiyaki and takoyaki being on the menu.