Happy Hour

Happy Hour of the Week 1.0: Biwa

What we talk about when we talk about cheap

May 8, 2009

For many reasons, Portland is unique in the culinary sense. In how many other cities of a similar size can one find nearly 400 food carts, hundreds of top restaurants, and more breweries than any other city in the world?

Perhaps what’s most unique is the flexibility of our better establishments. In no other city where I’ve lived (and I’ve moved around a fair bit) do so many top restaurants offer truly delicious yet deeply discounted food during happy hour. Whereas in most places “happy hour” refers to a three-dollar gin-and-tonic, here in Portland it means two people can generally eat very well with drinks and tip for less than $40 bucks.

So, in light of this, and in light of the fact that the economy is still sputtering (though showing sparks of hope here and there), Portland Plated will be highlighting Portland’s best happy hours at least once a week.

So, here goes.

I’ve never been to Japan, but Biwa owner Gabe Rosen sure makes me want to visit. Rosen spent a year in Sapporo, the principal city on the cold and northernmost island of Hokkaido. Sapporo is Portland’s sister city, and it’s home to some of the great and hearty items found on the Biwa menu.

Portland may not be as cold as Sapporo, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972, but our eight or so months of damp and dark weather make Biwa’s hearty fare pretty inviting. The restaurant specializes in handmade noodles and an assortment of grilled items, and a meal here is about as perfect as it gets during the wintertime—and happy-hour time.

But Biwa doesn’t have a happy hour per se. Better yet, it serves special counter-only fare all evening long. For a measly two bucks, you can order well-portioned skewers of pork belly, garlic, or chicken thighs and breasts. Add another buck and enjoy hanger steak with green onions. In the four-dollar category there’s the locally famous vegetable chijimi, a Korean-inspired savory pancake studded with bits of house-made kimchi and served with a tart sauce of ponzu and umeboshi vinegar. After 9 p.m., bowls of ramen and udon are a mere five bucks, and a Japanese draft beer will set you back only three more. Perhaps this explains why on any given night, Biwa’s ten or so counter seats are usually occupied by a who’s who of the local service industry. The two-year-old Biwa has been a hangout for chefs since day one.

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