You can score cult beers, discount office chairs, and cheap Santa suits in the Central Eastside, but since 109-year-old Japanese market Anzen closed in 2014, it’s been tougher to find the staple groceries, snacks, and baked treats that signify Japanese home cooking anywhere close-in on the east side. Now, Gabe Rosen, co-owner of Japanese izakaya Biwa, which closed this past summer, and Kana Hinohara Hanson, a Biwa vet, hope to fill the gap with Giraffe, a charming little deli and pantry market that opened inside Cargo just a few weeks ago.
The lefthand front corner of the global curiosity emporium is now devoted to a cold case packed with tidy lines of plastic-swaddled pork katsu and egg salad sandwiches, bento boxes, and canned drink imports. That's next to a long counter loaded with caramel-drizzled apple-matcha cream pastries and savory-sweet beef curry doughnuts from Japanese baking outfit Oyatsupan. (Giraffe is actually the only place to get the excellent Beaverton-based bakery’s goods east of the Willamette River, and you should take advantage of the deli's very generous samples before settling on your lunch order.)
A tall table backed by long, veggie-adorned fabric panels marks a small eating area, which faces a few tall shelves slowly but surely being filled with a meticulously chosen collection of Japanese pantry goods: Kewpie mayo, Okinawan black sugar, sesame seeds from an Osaka outfit, and Kyoto Prefecture vinegars sit with locally made go-tos like Umi noodles and Ota tofu, plus all the Hello Panda, Hi-Chews, and shrimp chips you could conceivably devour. It’s a postage stamp-sized culinary mash note to the kitchens of Japan.
Rosen, who now owns ramen spot Noraneko five blocks away, and Hanson, who ran Biwa with Rosen years ago, were interested in creating a space that prioritized delicious home cooking over the ubiquitous ramen and sushi menus that dominate local Japanese restaurants. Giraffe also taps into the country’s unique grab-and-go food culture.
“I’m interested in delis and convenience foods, not junk food. In Japan there’s so much convenient, high-quality, affordable food," says Rosen. "It’s everywhere.” In the works: curry rice and a hot case packed with Noraneko’s tasty karaage fried chicken and potato cream croquettes. “Kana and I ... wanted to see how we could explore different ideas in Japanese food without a restaurant. And, really, we just want to get everyone eating bento.”
That bento is a great light lunch: six or so varieties, salmon or vegetables to cold karaage, paired with good rice, a scoop of creamy, briny potato salad, a bit of sesame-rich steamed spinach, and a smattering of jewel-toned veggies: squash, carrot, taro, and smoky burdock.
The sandwiches, built on a foundation of Oyatsupan’s nearly sweet, sturdy white bread are already developing a following, according to Rosen. The egg salad, a cult fave in Japanese convenience stores, occasionally sells out. The katsu, meanwhile, is a cold comfort bomb of crunchy fried pork and cabbage slivers bound by Worcestershire-ketchupy katsu sauce and mayo.
The grocery selection is still evolving, but expect everything from dashi- and okonomiyaki-making kits to quality sakes to turn up in the months to come. (“Our goal is to have all the [pantry] basics so you can prepare Japanese meals at home,” says Rosen, who also promises recipes and classes in the future.) To be clear: This is no Uwajimaya. (Giraffe might actually fit inside Uwajimaya’s bathrooms.) But it is a sweet, close-in spot to snag high-quality, tough-to-find ingredients and treats in between monthly trips to H Mart or Fubonn, a calm oasis amid the holiday shopping frenzy, and a conversation starter for locals interested in Japanese cooking.
Plus, where else can you nibble onigiri steps away from giant fake lotus flowers, Israeli jewelry, Mexican folk art, Robert Mueller devotional candles, and vintage Indian kantha quilts? Nowhere.