THROUGH THE DIM RED LIGHTING, a constant stream of raunchy Japanese animation and Tarantino-style violence lights up TVs above while J-pop blares from a boom box in the corner. Tanuki’s new incarnation on SE Stark Street is a den of debauchery, with unbeatable izakaya (Japanese bar food) and a knockout drink list on the cheap. So consider yourself warned: the best way to enjoy a meal at this place is with plenty of sake.
The menu is a dizzying array of pickled plums, kimchi spice, and fermented noodles, but don’t panic—there’s an easy way out. Order omakase (basically “chef’s choice”): you name the price, and chef-owner Janis Martin will unleash a parade of spicy, salty, and sometimes unidentifiable plates for the whole table. Twenty dollars a head brings an onslaught of 12 gut-busting courses, from cinnamon-spiked, tea-stained quail eggs to Netarts oysters under an avalanche of shaved kimchi ice.
Martin’s menu is not for the cautious. Some dishes, like the tantan noodles—a three-alarm fire of thick udon noodles complete with scorching “chicken sauce,” fermented soybean, and raw quail egg—wrinkled some noses and delighted others. A tangle of shredded, dried squid reinvigorated with spicy mayonnaise was an immediate favorite, with a texture like the world’s best jerky. Even as the 12th course approached, there was room for a huge slab of grilled river eel, its rich meat lacquered with a sweet, sticky glaze.
Tanuki is Portland’s ultimate Japanese izakaya joint: dark, delicious, and requiring no forethought. Grab a bottle of sake for the table, say “omakase!” and settle in for an evening of hard eating. Just remember the rules from the original Tanuki on NW 21st Avenue: no sushi, no kids.
8029 SE Stark St
This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Portland Monthly.