Portland Monthly's Rising Star Chef 2014: Nodoguro's Ryan Roadhouse

Trained under old-school sushi masters, this zen chef remixes Japanese tradition into feasts of casual complexity.

By Karen Brooks October 8, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

One night’s literary-themed menu included salmon oyakodon, perfectly seared Oregon cod, and oysters topped with uni.

You may not have heard of Nodoguro. But you will. While we were hunting for the next ramen fix, Ryan Roadhouse grilled, cured, and chawanmushi-ed a fresh vision of Japanese dining. Two nights a week, this Spanish, Japanese-fluent chef freestyles on kappo cuisine, Japan’s ancient art of fine dining, in a slim storefront where customers feel like they’re right in the kitchen, chefs operate in the moment, and each dish a personal transaction.

Roadhouse, 36, trained under old-school sushi warriors in Denver and Japan, and he can dismantle a fish faster than Kim Kardashian can snap a selfie. Then he turns the bones, flesh, and tails into refined, Zen-calm seafood comforts, focused on local catches. You might find coastal sardine spines revived in a deep-fryer, then rising, like great french fries from the sea, in a bright soup of juiced cucumbers and shiso leaves. Oregon cod, glistening with buttery, crackling skin, pairs up with a butterscotchy miso jam. Meanwhile, a field of shimonita onion buds, blossoming baby cucumbers, and roasted buckwheat stems dance through the evening’s sashimis, stews, and teapots, hinting at Nodoguro’s secret weapon: the urban farm that fuels its menu. Seed by seed, Roadhouse and his sous-chef, Mark Wooten, are planting radical ideas on Wooten’s one-acre West Hills plot, Phantom Rabbit Farm, growing ingredients we’ve never encountered and transforming them into intricate tasting menus.

Nogoduro launched as a pop-up experiment last spring. Now, Roadhouse has a bona fide home base in the former Evoe space on SE Hawthorne. Themes change monthly, along with decorations by Elena Roadhouse, Ryan’s wife and the restaurant’s greeter and “atmosphere curator.” The evening’s inspiration might be a holiday, a film director, or an indie band. One series, for example, paid homage to surreal food descriptions ripped from pages of Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Roadhouse brought to life to Murakami’s “falling fish from the sky” (sea bream, shredded water pepper, and one very zippy ponzu). He even tackled a character’s fondness for peaches, pancakes, and Coca-Cola (wisely upgraded with shiso-poached fruit, maple-buttered senbei crackers, and cola syrup). Diners sat down to menus designed like old book covers, with Murakami’s source material stacked on tables to browse, spark conversation with a stranger, or ignore. 

Some lines from Murakami sum up Roadhouse’s ambition nicely: “Everything has boundaries. The same holds true with thought. You shouldn’t fear boundaries, but you should not be afraid of destroying them.” At Nodoguro, Roadhouse embraces tradition and ritual, with all of the fun and none of the rules, in nine courses of dinner-party charm.

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