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Eaten, Barely Blogged: Portland Update January 2018

It is still slightly weird that I’ve been back to Oregon so many times since January 2016. Portland has its charms but I’m still wary of fully embracing them. It’s not a bad place to eat, though.

Nimblefish I wasn’t really impressed with Portland fave Bamboo Sushi or even Nodoguru, though that was due to more of a vibe thing than a reflection on the product, so I was curious about Nimblefish which seemed to fill the niche between generic sushi and omakase. You can walk in; it’s not a big to do. You check boxes and each piece is made and placed in front of you one-by-one, which I prefer to all-at-once on a plate. It’s not cheap since it’s a la carte not combo-style, but not prohibitive (many nigiri are $3-$4). The menu is tightly edited and changes based on availability. I wanted to try both Hokkaido and Santa Barbara unis (which I’d seen on Instagram) but only the latter was on hand. That was fine. I ended up ordering more than I had intended–seven pieces in all–because I was fresh off of multiple happy hour vodkas at Kachka: hotate, tako, maguro, uni, akami (not pictured), chu toro, sawara. I would probably go here regularly when I get the urge for good sushi without a wait or too much fanfare.

Ate-oh-Ate  I’ve probably said this before but Portland has an outsize Hawaiian presence. I’ve been told it’s because a lot of Hawaiians go to University of Oregon and just stay after graduation. Maybe. I don’t know. I was staying at an Airbnb and tried to acclimate to my daily 10:30am NYC work call at 7:30am, which is very West Coast. Just like the inexplicable Hawaiian thing, people start work very early on the West Coast–at least in Oregon–even if they don’t do business with the East Coast. Like an 8am start time is normal. My mom, who just retired, started around 7am, I think, and her crazy husband gets to work at like 5am when he doesn’t even need to. People think I’m nuts when I say I don’t go to work until 10am (which is more like 10:30am but I don’t want to shock them too much). Anyway, I was working “at-home” and wanted lunch delivered. The Seamless scene is kind of sad, delivery is not a thing, and extra fees abound. Ate-oh-Ate did deliver, though, and why not a plate lunch? The double starch of macaroni salad and rice always gave me pause but I’ll admit it’s really good together (one scoop of each is plenty, though). I completely underestimated mayo-heavy macaroni salad, here served with teriyaki beef, and a side of chili water (the middle container), which might be my new favorite condiment (it’s spicy vinegar, not water).

Langbaan I still love what Langbaan is doing. On my third visit the theme was Bangkok street food (both other visits happened to be Central Thailand). Not all the dishes sounded alluring on paper (think I was just objecting to the “spinach noodles”) but none turned out to be duds. The salad of oyster, tripe, trumpet mushroom, wood ear mushroom, ginger, scallion was up my alley and my favorite might have been one of the three entrees: kor muu pad kapi/pork jowl, shrimp paste, jalapeno, crispy betel leaf, which hit all my fiery, funky, fatty buttons. I discovered that the long-distance boyfriend isn’t really a tasting menu person, which I kind of knew but I wanted to treat because I enjoy the experience from time to time. It can be pretentious for a server to (over)explain all of the ingredients (his complaint) but that just goes with the territory. I’ve been to Yarowat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, but I’m not going to be a brat about someone explaining it to me in the context of a dish.

Chart House When you start your workday at 7am, you can kick off at 3pm, which is disorienting. That seems like a vast amount of free time but then you realize you can’t stay up as late as you’re used to. But one advantage is being able to go to happy hours, something I’m rarely able to do in NYC. Plus, happy hours are more of a thing in Portland, not just at bars but restaurants, even nice restaurants. Chart House is a “nice” restaurant in that it has a view (supposedly of all three area mountains) and it’s where people go for their anniversaries and maybe 50th birthday parties. This is probably the case in all cities (it’s a Landry’s chain). Apparently, in its former incarnation, Hillvilla, my mom went with her eighth grade class for lunch. When I ended eighth grade, we only got to go to Oaks Park on a school bus where the kids were screaming along to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and mocking the lyrics. I would not eat at Chart House, the restaurant, but I was curious what the downstairs lounge would be like for happy hour. There is cheap wine and well spirits (the discounted cocktail are all too sweet) plus calamari, fish tacos, sliders, ahi nachos, and the like. Nothing mind-blowing. On the non-discounted menu, they featured cocktails made in those Porthole infusers made famous by The Aviary, a trickle-down effect in the wild.

Kachka I still haven’t eaten a proper meal here since I’ve only been solo during happy hours, which are very good value. I ended up with steelhead roe with challah and smetana butter (like creme fraiche), cabbage roll stuffed with beef, pork, and lamb, plus green walnut-infused vodka, cranberry-infused vodka shot and a beer, and one more vodka that I don’t even remember.

Clay’s Smokehouse I wouldn’t seek out barbecue in Portland, and have no desire to try the few spots that get acclaim (and even less desire to try vegan barbecue) but my vote for pizza was nixed when I discovered pies named after old-school Portland music scenesters. Farther down Division Street, it appeared that a long-time barbecue joint that I had never heard of but the companion always liked, moved across the street, so I was amenable to checking it out. The ribs were fine, I don’t love home fries, I wished the Texas toast was cheese bread, and the kale with almonds in a very tangy dressing was surprisingly good. I was more enamored with the Miller High Life pony bottle.

Shovel Time: Copacabana Brazilian Grill

In the last five years that I’ve lived alone, my interest in cooking has gone way down. Not into it after work, and not even into it as a Sunday project. Even when I force myself to make something Sunday night that sounds great (most recently, a Korean short rib stew) by two consecutive dinners and a lunch I’m sick of it. It’s only on the verge of moving that I’ve become ok with this. I’m not going to feel bad for relying on the completely reasonably priced restaurants in my neighborhood.

 

Which brings me to Copacabana, kind of like a low-rent churrascaria, which is very cost effective if you’re into meat trying to go light on carbs (I can’t give up bread!). I couldn’t justify buying ribs, pork belly, and prime rib just for a few slices.  On some nights the self-serve buffet is just ok (I’m sad when there is no chicharron) but on my recent visit it was great and had everything freshly replenished. There’s also a guy who cuts slices of around eight skewers of meat on a rotisserie. Most cuts are closer to well done than rare (and I’m sure you could ask for slices closer to the middle) but aren’t dry and flavorless at all.

There is green salad and toppings plus fried yuca (carby, whatever), plantains, beans, rice, and also multiple Brazilian dishes that I don’t know the names of like one with shrimp, mushrooms in a pinkish cream sauce, a black-eyed pea thing with ham and hard-boiled eggs that is almost like fried rice and I could eat a whole bowl of, and slightly odd cold dishes, one which looks like julienned beets from afar but is actually vinegary ham.

Anyway, you can be strategic and less dense items. If I’m correct, the meat is $9.99/lb and buffet and meat is $6.99/lb. The above takeout container’s contents cost around $12 (there’s more in there than it appears) and that was dinner and lunch the next day, which isn’t ridiculously cheap but totally reasonable considering I might spend $12 on a midtown sandwich when I go to the office.

Copacabana Brazilian Grill * 80-26 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY 

Un-American Activities: McDonald’s Japan EBI Filet-O

 

I’m not one of those McDonald’s nuts who has to pay a visit in any city, but it was late and the Marriott I was staying at for two nights in Osaka had a skybridge attached to the train station  with a McDonald’s on the other end that happened to be still open right as I was heading home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the EBI Filet-O a.k.a. shrimp burger seemed to highlight the differences between American and Japanese tastes best. It’’s a classic, always on the menu, not a limited edition. Shrimp is a perfectly fine thing to make a patty out of, though this is more like a flattened croquette, crusted in panko and fried. The sauce was kind of tartar and kind of thousand island. For some reason in Japan, fried food doesn’t seem like an unhealthy choice.

These cheesy potato puffs, a.k.a. American Cheddar Potato, were part of an “American Deluxe” promotion. Less like tater tots, these were mashed potato mixed with cheese and fried. Yes, like another croquette.

I Do(nut)/Un-American Activities: Dominique Ansel Japan

She said yes! 💍 Honored to be a part of a special moment here at the Bakery, when Allen surprised his girlfriend Sam – not only did she not know he was going to be in Japan, but then he proposed to her with a ring hidden inside our Blossoming Hot Chocolate! Congratulations to Allen and Sam! Wishing you lots of love and hot chocolates for many years to come. #DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #shesaidyes #Omotesando プロポーズ大作戦! フィリピンからお越しのサムさん、何も知らずオーダーした花咲くホットチョコレートから輝くエンゲージリングが💍、そしてフィリピンにいるはずの彼のアレンさんがサプライズ登場!!✨ アレンさん、サムさん本当におめでとうございます㊗️いつまでもお幸せに!#ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #ドミニク #花咲くホットチョコレート #プロポーズ #表参道

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There is nothing un-American about using food in your public marriage proposal. I think it might’ve been one of the tenets our nation was founded on. So, I suppose it’s not that strange for someone to use a Blossoming Hot Chocolate for a “Will you marry me?” vehicle at a Tokyo branch of an NYC bakery helmed by a Frenchman. No idea on the nationality of the betrothed, though I think it’s a safe bet with names like Sam and Allen they are not Japanese.

I’ve never eaten a cronut before but I can’t resist seasonal, localized flavors so I did stop into the Omotesando location and order the November flavor, rose ganache, chestnut jam, even though floral edibles are not my bag. Also, the autumn religieuse, which turned out to be very pumpkin-y, just because it was so pretty.

Mr. Roboto buns, fake tomatoes, and more.

Our Oden Bûche de Noël, just in time for the holiday season here at @DABJapan. It’s inspired by our favorite kinds of oden! 🍢 The “Hampen” at the top is made with cheese cake, the braised egg in the middle is actually caramel with a yuzu mousse “yolk” inside, and the “Chikuwa” oden at the bottom is made with chestnut mousse. Available also as a mini version both @DABJapan Omotesando and Ginza Mitsukoshi.#DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #Omotesando #Ginza #Christmascake 今年も人気のおでんのようなブッシュドノエル🍢 上から、滑らかなチーズケーキで出来た はんぺん に、煮卵 はキャラメルとユズムースで黄身もしっかりと表現されています。そして 一番下の ちくわ はしっとり大人な味わいの栗のムースです🌰 #おでん #ブッシュドノエル 大きいサイズは表参道限定 ミニサイズは表参道、銀座店共に販売しています! 注目のオデンブッシュ、ぜひお試しください。 #ドミニク #ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #表参道 #銀座 #三越 #クリスマスケーキ

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Sadly, there was no trompe-l’œil oden on my visit, though it was cool enough for real oden to make an appearance elsewhere. I wonder how much usage the 🍢 emoji gets outside of non-Japanese world?

Shovel Time: Bar Masuda

I am a planner by nature, leaving little to chance or happenstance on vacations. I mean, I wander, but I often already have places in mind to eat or drink in the area I’m going. I didn’t, however, research drinks in Osaka. No idea why since I had a list of bars for Kyoto, none of which I ended up going to.

While joining the early evening crowds roaming Dotonbori, I did spy an unexpected fat-fetishy hostess bar, La Potcha Potcha, which is the kind of place I wouldn’t try to enter without prior research. Maybe I could write about it? Strangely, one of the only English language articles I found about it was in Vice from a few years back and it made it sound like white guys would be turned away, and definitely no women would be permitted. I don’t know if that’s true, but as a socially anxious lady, I wasn’t bold enough to test it out. I’ll never know if this was a missed opportunity. I’m no gonzo journalist.

But just down the street, there was a stone arch marking a non-flashy bar. It just seemed right, and by accident we stumbled into maybe the best bar in Osaka, Bar Masuda.

It had just opened so we had no problem getting a seat at the long narrow bar. There was a menu, which opened to a page that I think was meant to emphasize the importance of drinking water with your alcohol.

Osaka was the land of dubious drinking claims (though I’m not saying staying hydrated while drinking alcohol is dubious).

The menu also contained lists classic cocktails by primary spirit and Bar Masuda originals. Only titles were in English, ingredients were in Japanese so the so-called classics I’d never heard of like the King’s Valley or Emerald Cooler remained mysteries. Unlike in New York (or Tokyo, though Tokyo is surprisingly less expensive on many counts than NYC) the drinks were completely reasonably priced, many in the $10-$12 range.

There was a leg of what looked like serrano ham on the counter. This was promising.

It turned out to be Kagoshima Black pig, a local specialty, served in slices with cilantro, Japan by way of Spain.

And then I noticed a bunch of enamel pins high on a shelf, one of “Uncle Tory,” the ‘60s-style Suntory mascot, that I had just bought at the Yamazaki Distillery in Kyoto.

The bartenders were also wearing a few Bar Masuda pins on their lapels. I used my Google translate app to ask the young man behind the bar if I could possibly buy one. He went and got Mr. Masuda (son of the original Masuda) himself, silver suit jacket to match his hair, to come over. And just like everyone in Osaka, though we could only communicate in piecemeal English, he was chatty and generous. He reached down under the bar and pulled out a long piece of fabric with pins attached and gave me both that I had been asking about. Normally, this would call for a nice tip but no one even accepts them.

Boiled peanuts. I had no idea this was a thing in Japan.

When the lights dimmed and a pyrotechnic show started at the end of the bar, I was convinced to switch from my simple, well-made martini to a Blue Blazer. 

The drink really isn’t more than a hot toddy with scotch–at least in the US–but this version, a Blue Blazer II, added Grand Marnier and swapped lime for lemon. It is served warm in tin cup, heated by a flame that gets dramatically transferred from one metal mug to another as the liquor is poured from a great height. This is the specialty of the house, and I say it was worth the theatrics.

Bar Masuda * 2 Chome-3-11 Shinsaibashisuji, Osaka, Japan

Shovel Time: Kushikatsuryori Katsu

There are a handful of regional specialties unique to Osaka and environs, takoyaki being the biggest one, which I completely forgot to eat. That’s crazy. I’m also still kicking myself for not buying takoyaki Pringles that every single souvenir shop was selling.

Lesser known (at least to me) is kushikatsu, a.k.a. kushiage, which is kind of tempura on sticks. It’s deep fried meat, seafood, and vegetables, so yeah, the only difference is breadcrumbs in the crust where tempura is more puffy.

This was an accidental pitstop since we were in Osaka station, just wanting a snack, but around 5pm every restaurant was packed wall-to-wall. You’d think as a near-New Yorker I’d be used to squeaking into cramped seating arrangements but Japan takes close quarters to new extremes.

This place, which had no English name (that I have since deduced with 95% accuracy is Kushikatsuryori Katsu, based on many image searches), had open seats. The menu was a little bit confusing (no English, but pictures) so I ended up picking a set meal to split rather than going blindly a la carte, so it was a little pricey (for train station food) but it came with soup, a lot of cabbage and raw sliced vegetables, and a surprise scoop of ice cream at the end. It was also a little fancier than other kushikatsu restaurants I’ve seen online as there is no communal dipping sauce.

 

I have no idea how the chef decided what to place in front of my vs. my travel companion. We just went with it.There was a prawn, a giant stalk of asparagus, ham wrapped around a giant oyster that wasn’t battered at all. The fun is kind of in the dipping sauces like hot mustard and worcestershire-heavy tonkatsu sauce, some which we were advised went with specific skewers.

The star, though, ended up being a seasoned salt that just looked like salt with maybe a grayish hue and scant dark specks. I have no clue what was in it (Googling kushikatsu salt gets you nowhere) but probably MSG because it made everything taste more savory and amazing.

I only spent two days in Osaka, but my impression was that staff, while we couldn’t communicate well, were super friendly, more so than in Tokyo or Kyoto. We ended up with parting gifts at three establishments: chopsticks at a yakitori place, enamel pins at Bar Masuda, and here, the mysterious salt blend. We were talking about it while we ate but I’m fairly certain no one was eavesdropping. Maybe everyone gets salt to take home?

This was a very exciting part of the trip.

Kushikatsuryori Katsu * 1-1-3 Shibata, Kita-ku | B2F Hankyu 3-Bangai, Osaka, Japan

Chains of Love: Ichiran

I used to get excited about foreign chains in NYC but lately I’m more indifferent. Case in point, Ichiran opened right around the time I went to Japan last year for Thanksgiving and I still haven’t checked it out and it’s almost the end of 2017. I don’t want to go to Bushwick to eat overpriced ramen, as in $19, even in a so-called flavor concentration booth. (I’d liken them more to library carrels, which I just spelled “carols” even though I’ve worked in a zillion libraries.)

Bowls of ramen are practically all under $10, even with tip, in Tokyo where novelty comes cheap and with the territory. Ichiran in Tokyo is 24 hours, you buy a ticket from a vending machine with large photo buttons kind of like a cigarette machine (you do remember those?), look for an open seat on the big electronic wall display, then proceed into a hushed room flanked by two rows of stools. You can fill out a card with preferences like degree of noodle doneness, richness of broth, garlic or no garlic, spice level, and extras and add-ins. And of course there is a red button if you want service. 

Each seating space has an individual water dispenser which is amazing. If you order a ramen that comes with a tea egg, it will be presented first in a little dish. At least I don’t think this is an appetizer as much as it looks like one. You will only see hands and lower bodies beneath the screen and once the hands place your order in front of you, they will drop the screen altogether.

As to the ramen, I never have the wherewithal to go nuts with flavor descriptions. I don’t think I’ve yet to encounter a meh bowl of ramen in Japan, and Ichiran’s was better than average. What makes it so? The tonkotsu-style broth is rich and assertive as a pork broth should be, but it’s not overpowering.  There is a balance to the amount of noodles and sliced not-that-fatty pork with just a pop of salt and heat. 

I hate to say that ramen isn’t my first choice unless I’m starving, but it tends to make me feel too stuffed and tired afterwards. I’m sensitive to carbs, though. I’m also not usually a food-sharer–in fact, I’ve been called a “food hoarder,” disparagingly– but I ended up giving some chashu and noodles to my travel companion (you can also fold the wooden walls to make a shared space). I can’t even imagine ordering extra noodles, which you can. I was the only one at group meals (even with super fitness-y women) to order a small rice instead of the standard and was the only one who didn’t finish it.

More to the point/less about my adorable eating habits: I would recommend Ichiran for the full immersive experience if you happen to be in Japan. There are 60+ locations around the country so it’s likely you’ll pass by one.

Ichiran * 3-34-11 B1F Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan 

Unamerican Activities: Taco Bell Japan

 

One of the most recent American fast food (re)entries in Japan is Taco Bell, and there was surprisingly little difference on the Tokyo menu from our standards. I was led to believe there was a localized shrimp and avocado burrito, which I didn’t see, and taco rice. There was beer (though we’re catching up). 

There were loaded fries (Taco Bell Japan are no racists) which I did order, though the nacho cheese was strangely low on flavor. Maybe it just needed more salt.

The biggest difference between the Taco Bells on two continents was price. Two hard shelled tacos, fries, and two Asahis cost over $20. I guess that’s the trade-off for $8 ramen that would go for $15 in NYC. There are no self-serve salsa packets, perhaps because Japanese don’t have spare kitchen drawers to store extra condiments and abhor litter. You have to specify spice level when you order.

A tacocat was posing out front, fortuitously. He (or she–the mane might’ve fooled me) was gone when we left.

P.S. A new Tokyo Taco Bell just opened today!

Taco Bell *  2 Chome-25-14 Dogenzaka, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Momiji

I’m sure there are exceptions but state capitals tend to be almost non-places and definitely not food destinations. Sacramento? Albany? Salem? Have you ever been curious about sushi Oregon’s capital? Probably not.

Salem is full of lesser regional chains like Izzy’s and Pietro’s, and also a Sizzler. (I can’t believe the only one left in Portland that I was supposed to go to on a Tinder date but ended up going to with my grandma is gone.) I went to the Oregon State Fair earlier and decided to stay the night. Momiji was one of the few places open late on Sunday (until midnight) and I kind of like this level of non-purist sushi: crazy rolls, all-you-can-eat specials, and saloon doors separating a video poker room. A lot of businesses in Salem are low-slung and windowless like they are up to something. 

You don’t even have to wear shoes.

When in Salem one must order the Salem roll, a holy trinity of cream cheese, avocado, and fake crab, fried tempura-style and drizzled with eel sauce. Momiji is the kind of place where you don’t feel guilty for ordering sushi with sweet and creamy sauces, though I still got some unadorned ikura and maguro.

I might’ve guessed that the poke on the appetizer list was just riding the wave of Hawaiian raw fish popularity, though it’s hard to say because I forgot how much of a Hawaiian presence there is in the NW. I’ve heard because many Hawaiians go to the University of Oregon and end up staying. I’ve been to multiple luaus in the 20 months that I’ve been visiting Portland. All that plus tempura was too much food.

Momiji * 4590 Silverton Rd., Salem, Oregon

 

Newborn: Khao Nom

Just around the corner from Khao Kang, in a similar rough wood style that all the new Elmhurst Thai restaurants seem to have adopted, is a newish cafe serving mostly Thai sweets. I don’t think the two businesses are related. (Ok, they are.)

Coconut pudding was a special so I tried an order of two (and I ate most of one before I took a photo). A salty layer of coconut cream hides a pale green gel flavored and colored with pandan. I also bought emerald sticky rice in a banana leaf, just because I love green and pandan might be my favorite natural scent in the world. They also have a short list of savories like curry puffs, salads, and noodles. I didn’t see any khanom bueang a.k.a. Thai tacos (crepes often with a marshmallow-like meringue which can be dressed up sweet or savory) though I think they do those as well.

The to-go packaging is cute, with a strong brand identity and a banana leaf laid inside the cardboard box. Tables inside have little place-markers that instead of names read cheeky words like “badass” or “sexy.” It’s something different, at least.

Khao Nom * 76-20 Woodside Av., Elmhurst, NY