Introducing... Tanuki

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the July 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Kim Nguyen

LONG HAS the Japanese fare in this town consisted of the usual staples: sushi, teriyaki combos, and udon soups. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these standbys, those of us who don’t jet off to Tokyo on business every other month have been deprived of some of the more subtle and provocative aspects of Japanese cuisine. Which is where this quaint corner restaurant on NW 21st Avenue comes in.

At Tanuki—a name derived from a Shinto spirit creature believed to shape-shift in pursuit of free meals, women, and wine—sashimi and gyoza (fried dumplings) are available, but for most Portlanders everything else on the menu will taste refreshingly new. A bowl of hot short-grain rice topped with a raw quail egg and covered with a potent condiment made of fried minced pork belly, Okinawan rice liquor, miso paste, chiles, and ginger draws on the powers of salty and pungent. The Rafutei Ssam provides the pleasure of eating with your hands: Patrons are given a bowl of incredibly flavorful braised pork belly, a stack of thin chive crêpes, lettuce, and an elegant white plate of pickled daikon radishes, kimchi, chiles, and mustard sauce with which to make their own hand rolls.

Designed in the manner of a Japanese pub, Tanuki houses only a few tables and a small counter at which to eat, which might make one think that service will be quick. But the last time I dined there, owner Janice Martin prepared all the food herself, as she often does, so it took awhile for my meal to arrive. The menu of small shared plates can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with the ingredients, but Martin, a gracious host, is happy to point you in the right direction. She won’t make you eat duck hearts if you don’t want to—though I’d suggest trying them, grilled as they are and served with a sweet-and-salty salad. Plus, with so many ho-hum sushi joints and noodle shops in town, surely we’re ready to try something new from Japan.