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International Intrigue: Afuri Portland

It recently dawned on me that I’ve become a townie.

This development is surprising since I didn’t grow up in a college town or go to school in a college town, which were one and the same, so that label has never had any resonance. But I’ve come to recognize the provincial symptoms: nostalgia for the bad old days, suspicion of the new, disdain for outsiders with seemingly more money than sense.

I wasn’t shocked that a bowl of ramen at the new(ish) Afuri in Portland cost twice as much as in Tokyo because like most modern humans I look at online menus before I dine at restaurants. And I’m not outraged. Objectively, it’s a really good bowl of ramen. I’m not saying it’s not worth $16 (even though Manhattan-priced Ippudo is $15). But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and this is as good as any example what’s weird with the New Portland.

Afuri is located in an area that now some like to call the Central Eastside Industrial District, three blocks from dive, My Father’s Place, that I used to call lovingly, “Cum on the Grill,” and just up the street from a friend’s $2,000/month design studio, which will triple in rent in a few short years.


People in Portland are living in tents like it’s no big thing. Maybe everyone is too stoned to care? (Though the city, because it was traditionally do-goody, has always had a disproportionate amount of homeless.) I vaped nice and legal anxiety-quashing high CBC/low THC weed 75% of the days I was there (I was never a stoner in my youth, which is a feat in the NW) and still think there are way too many dispensaries and billboards advertising cannabis. Even local white bread Franz Bakery (that employed a delivery driver who rear-ended and totaled my parked Chevette in the late ‘90s—I will never forgive them) has cutely illustrated vans now saying “Get Portland Baked.”

Post-college, I lived on $425 a month, which my step-dude leaked to my Oregonian boyfriend a few weeks ago coupled with the advice,”Don’t ever apologize for being working class,” and the year I moved, 1998, I made roughly $14,000, the result of an $11 an hour, full-benefits, part-time (by choice) government job. (Library pages at NYPL in 2017 make $11 an hour.) Twenty years later, and practically no one I know, friends and family, makes over $40,000 a year in Oregon. (Though I haven’t a clue how much clothing design brings in, and I’m aware of an NYC transplant frenemy who earns $70,000, likely a step down salary-wise, and pays $1,800 for a studio apartment.)


Why should I care? I have a well-paying job, low overhead, no dependents, and most importantly, I don’t even live in Portland. It offends me that studio apartments in my hometown cost more than my mortgage and maintenance in Queens. And yes, Queens is still NYC. It offends me that job searches using “content” as a keyword turn up grocery store clerk positions.

Ok, back to the food. Nomad.PDX just morphed from pop-up to permanency with a $160 tasting menu, which Eater defended thusly “But remember, 20 courses for $160 is still peanuts when compared with most prices in other cities.” Not really. Sure, I wouldn’t even give it a thought in NYC. I still think that’s aggressive pricing in Portland. I once let my guard down and tried the $125 Nodoguro “Hardcore Omakase” and I can’t remember anything about it. Everyone I’ve encountered in the restaurant industry is nice, the staff are always very earnest, but there’s a lot of pretense. I almost laughed at a recent dinner when a server asked if I wanted the short or long explanation of the Venica “Talis” Pinot Bianco he was pairing with the mushroom larb. Short, please. And for what it’s worth, the $80 tasting at Langbaan is a great value.


Tokyo style


Ok, now back to Afuri. The Portland branch shares the ramen in common with the Tokyo original but that’s where all resemblances end. Afuri, at least in Harajuku, isn’t a hole in the wall. There’s an upscale feel but there are only counter seats, you place your order by feeding change to a vending machine and handing the ticket to the host/cook, and there’s very little to contemplate beyond ramen or tsukemen.

afuri dining

The Portland restaurant is vast, with a separate bar, counter seating, and at least twenty tables, freestanding and along the wall of windows. There was more than one party that consisted of grown children accompanied by confused parents, very similar to Williamsburg. There is a wine list, cocktails, the menu has a callout box featuring five ramen on the upper right side, and the rest is devoted to hot and cold appetizers, robata offerings (St. Helens Farm beef tongue, Jacobsen salt, black pepper, scallion, sesame oil, lemon, anyone?) and sushi and sashimi. It would almost make sense for the US restaurant to use that strange SE Asian naming affectation and call it something like Yuzu by Afuri indicating its lineage but broadcasting a different concept.

afuri ramen portland

Same bowl, same ladle spoon, extra metal plate.


I wasn’t asked if I wanted the standard chu-yu (chicken oil) in my yuzu ratanmen or the extra oil. It came with a marked sheen on the surface and was definitely heavier than the Japanese version. The magic of Afuri’s ramen is that it is extremely rich and concentrated but still manages to be light. I hate to use the word “clean” to describe food, though I almost felt energized the first time I ate it. This bowl still had the nice citrus tones that complemented the spice, but there was no way I could eat a pancake soufflé afterwards like I did in Tokyo. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed my quick Sunday afternoon meal.

But maybe I wouldn’t have if I lived there. That’s the rub. I’ve been toying with moving back to Portland, I guess for love, but I just can’t justify it when there are scant professional jobs there and my cost of living is less in NYC. I never thought I’d have much in common with rent-stabilized natives of Bushwick, yet now I’ve been gentrified out of my hometown and it’s still kind of a shithole. Keep Portland weird, you guys!

P.S. If rumors are to believed, Afuri is going gangbusters in Portland. A second downtown branch is supposedly already in the works.

Afuri * 923 S.E. 7th Ave., Portland, OR

Noodling Around Tokyo


Keika Ramen This was random ramen, my first proper meal (7-Eleven doesn’t count) in Tokyo. I managed to order what seemed to be tonkotsu ramen and beer by vending machine photos, though I couldn’t discern what set apart minutely different ramens with different prices on the first row, and considered this a success. This bowl was like $6. I don’t think I encountered a bowl more than $10 even at nicer places.


Nogata Hope The soundtrack at this sort of modern ramen-ya near my airbnb (English menus, lots of wood–actually, wooden slabs and tree trunks were used all over Tokyo restaurants and bars) was one of many auditory quirks that I will continue to document. So many restaurants played incongruous music. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember who sang “More Than Words” and my pocket wifi (such a great invention) ran out of a charge. Duh, Extreme. I was also introduced the concept of byob (bringing your own bibs), as a father donned one he whipped out of his suitcase while his son slurped, earphones on, as well as being asked whether you want your broth fatty or not. I did. This place also had personal garlic presses on the table and pickled, chopped red chiles that seemed more Chinese. The ramen was unctuous–all that fat and chile oil–and great. The gyoza just seemed like Trader Joe’s.


? This ramen was just ok, not horrible at all but less punchy and rich than I had elsewhere, but we chose it for likely the same reason as most of the tourists (Asian, by the way) who’d wandered in from the Senso-Ji shrine: English menus. However, the gyoza were better than Nogata Hope.


Afuri is totally something different due to a citrusy chicken broth that I wasn’t convinced I needed to try until in addition to reading English language odes and recently arrived in Portland press ($14 a bowl! My hometown is officially gone nuts), my good friend’s visiting-from-Japan Tinder date from 1.5 years ago that she brought to my Kentucky Derby party even though it turned out to be platonic and he didn’t speak English that I met for yakitori showed me a photo of Afuri on his phone and said it was good. Ok. And wow, it was. I didn’t have the classic shio (also above) but yuzu ratanmen, skinny noodles, spicy with chile oil, garnished with mizuna and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The nitamago (eggs) were always so perfect everywhere. This was filling, but not gross filling–in fact, I still had room for a pancake-soufflee afterward. In NYC this would be a shitshow, but the lines are orderly (I just beat the line and only had one woman in front of me), you use a vending machine, hand your ticket to a cook behind the bar seating, stand around and feel no stress to assert your position even though there isn’t a hostess to keep track and yet it all works. Only once did I see someone think it was a free for all when a diner got up, and a cook/kind-of-host called the rightful next-diners over. Counter stools (always with a place to store your bag underneath) and coat hooks prevent clutter. Cooks start preparing your ramen as you sit down. This ramen was $8. Seriously.

bukkake-udonItteki Hassen-ya I really prefer udon to ramen. More chewy, more diverse. I wanted to go to TsuroTonTan on my last night but it the last order was 8pm on Sunday and I couldn’t get it together in the rain. Shin, plan B, had a line, other places at eye level in Shinjuku were empty, seemed like chains (yes, TsuroTonTan is a chain) none were promising, so I took a chance on an upstairs venue, no English name (but brought to it by Yelp based on a distance search–Yelp was helpful in that way, more so than Google explore) menus, or speakers, all cigarette smokey, and it was a great send off. It might of seemed unorthodox to order a cold udon on a cool night (the chef warned me) but I’m always hot and I wanted tempura. Ebi ten bukkake was no joke.