Early Cuts at Pono Farm Soul Kitchen

The lauded Bend meat purveyor’s first Portland restaurant needs less sauce and more meat.

By Benjamin Tepler September 8, 2014

Right: Pork loin tonkatsu with ponzu mayonnaise.

When Pono Farm owners Shin and Ted Nakato announced they were opening a meat-centric soul kitchen based on their Japanese-American upbringing, we imagined a temple to their locally raised livestock—like a yakiniku grill with thin slices of beef from every part of the animal. Instead, (so far) Pono Farm Soul Kitchen is serving an unwieldy trifecta of Western-influenced Japanese comfort food, steakhouse cuts, and sushi; overshadowing their top-quality livestock.

Pono sits one block down from the Hollywood Theater off a busy stretch of Sandy Boulevard, with a sleek, substantial, 75-seat dining room. The through line on Pono’s menu, arranged under “Pacific Coast, Sushi Bar, Beef, and Pork,” is Japanese flavor, from authentic dishes to creative fusions (think rib carpaccio with ginger scallion chimichurri and a “PDX Roll” with Serrano chiles.

Pono’s meat preparations, which feature the farm’s lauded Wagyu, Red Angus, Berkshire, and Red Wattle breeds, lean heavily toward yoshoku cooking, a subset of Japanese cuisine born out of the country’s 19th century exposure to Western flavors. At Pono, it’s typified by heavy dishes like pork loin tonkatsu (the Japanese Weiner schnitzel), beef curry with rice, and a meatloaf-like “Hambagu” steak burger. It’s the type of food Pono’s owners grew up eating, but not a great choice for showcasing their hyper-local fresh meat. Even the gutsy cuts are masked: fatty carpaccio is dowsed in a pool of potent sesame oil, while wok-fired beef liver in goopy, sweet sauce eats more like Chinese take out than pasture-raised offal.

Simple steaks are a far better bet here—juicy NY strip or a flavorful, diminutive bavette—grilled over coconut charcoal and applewood for pure smoky, salty, seared satisfaction on par with Laurelhurst Market for meaty fulfillment—hold the black truffle brown sauce. Or try the kushiyaki, three-bite skewers with a blast of scallion-shishito-beef flavor power. Lunch also shows promise, with its notably less Japanese-influenced sandwiches, from a thick-stacked pork pastrami Reuben to a Waygu cheddar burger on a brioche bun. Bonus points for creative sides like bacon-fried rice and smoked ham macaroni salad.

Pono has the potential to be a great restaurant, with a direct line to some of Oregon’s best beef and pork. But first it needs to focus its frenetic menu and give diners what they really want: stellar unadulterated meat.

Pono Farm Soul Kitchen
4118 NE Sandy Blvd
Tues-Sat: Lunch, 11:30am-2:30pm 
Dinner, 5-10pm 

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