Eat Here Now

Building a Better Biwa

Southeast Portland’s cozy Japanese den of delights bolts down the formulas to make a lasting impression.

By Karen Brooks January 5, 2011

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Japanese udon noodle soup at Biwa.

Image: Gideon Bosker

Not all Portland restaurants are joining the French revolution or replicating their own DNA in casual spinoffs. Some are just drilling down, thinking smarter, getting better. And no place more notably than Biwa, a concrete cavern of Doug fir, Asian drinking foods, and Japanese textiles at 215 SE Ninth Ave.

What started as a spare room of potential in 1997 has flowered into a dynamic den of adventure—the Japanese Pok Pok, with a new infusion of street foods, menu specials, and homemade sodas made mysteriously delicious behind black pepper. All this, with a savvy sake list and wine picks far beyond what normally flies at Asian restaurants.

Biwa has always sizzled like a yakori grill under the train tracks in Tokyo while shouting “recycled Portland.” Now, “realized restaurant” joins the great vibe. The heart of the place belongs to committed owners Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz and their cast of Japanese comforts: soup noodles and grilled rice balls; kimchee deep-fried (and fried rice with kimchee); Japanese fried chicken; and all kinds of things blissfully skewered and grilled, from salted mackerel to mochi, livers to hearts, with most options $4–9.

Now the duo has grown their once-lean list into something deeper, with more opportunities for satisfaction and discovery, including a 7-course omakase (chef’s choice) menu for $35 (the kitchen will pair an intriguing mix of beers, wines and sakes for an additional $25).

Meanwhile, new specialties rotate in and out, including beef ssam (roll-your-own bundles with leafy lettuce, grilled steak slivers, shaved garlic, and thick schmears of miso paste) and yellowfin tuna sashimi, elegantly sliced and arranged with radish pickles, green onions, and fresh horseradish.

The crowd is multi-cultural, upbeat, and full-on most nights, compelled by good prices and a newly expanded late-night menu with options from ramen to sashimi joining Biwa’s late-night star: a whopping grass-fed burger, edged with fire-breathing kimchee mayo and toppled with the kitchen’s barbecued pork (Gabe Rosen was formerly a butcher at Portand’s esteemed Viande Meats & Sausage—need we say more?)

New trends and fresh directions juice up a food scene. But bolting down the formulas make it last. Happy New Year Biwa.

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