Tonari Shows How to Open a Restaurant during a Pandemic: With Grace, Passion, and Humor
Editor's note: A shortened version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Portland Monthly
Portland’s first major pandemic-era restaurant is ready to roll … strange beauty and all. Belmont’s long-awaited Tonari will open June 12, complete with wild tofu smoothies, a “tonguekatsu” sandwich that could rope-a-dope New York pastrami, and a virus-zapping, ultraviolet-lit HVAC system. At least that’s the plan, unless frogs, squid, or locusts drop from the sky. And given the times, who knows?
In January 2019, Ryan and Elena Roadhouse conjured a casual spin-off to Nodoguro, their acclaimed, booked-in-advance omakase spot. The idea was to gather some of their obsessions under one roof—Tokyo’s jazz café subculture, kissaten tea-drinking spots, and a philosophy rooted in Okinawa’s happy-seeking, longevity-inducing Blue Zone diet. To brainstorm a makeover of the former Accanto space next door to Nodoguro on SE Belmont, they even flew in an architect-cum-DJ from Japan. A Roadhouse experience is always personal and charming, backed by food from one of the country’s best sushi chefs. Not surprisingly, Portland’s food scene has waited, excitedly, through a slew of delays.
Now, at last, a vision has emerged. Nothing has changed at Tonari, and yet everything has changed.
The food, based on a soft, soft-opening test drive, is carefully considered: not just rice, but an intricate house Haiga black rice blend that’s chewy, nutty, and nutrient-rich; not just off-the-rack seaweed, but high-quality Ariake seaweed, sourced for Tonari by Tokyo’s 325-year-old Yamamotoyama company. We expect this from chef Ryan Roadhouse.
What I didn’t expect? The taste of a whole new cuisine ... healthy, Japanese new wave, Blue Zone, what?
Where else are you going to find onigirazu rice-and-seaweed wraps, born in the pages of the Japanese manga series Cooking Papa, their centers stuffed with ham and tamago (folded sweet egg omelet) or a thick smudge of creamy smoked trout and cucumber matchsticks. Or purple potatoes, an Okinawa essential, mashed like pie filling beneath a Russian-inflected salad of pickled cukes, smoked hard-boiled eggs, and Georgian spices, inspired by “mom’s cooking,” a.k.a. Elena’s mother.
What’s changed? We’re eating it, à la moment, in take-out boxes. That said, the entire menu is available for pickup. That includes exacting pour-over coffee, high-grade genmaicha tea from Japan, and a la carte dishes ($5–12) including sandwiches, a lovely saba caesar salad, perfect miso soup, creative tofu smoothies, vegetable sides, raisin-soaked corn shortbread cookies, and a mind-bending “parfait” sporting silky, custardy tofu, “granola” clusters made from cake-like, butter-toasted sheets of dried okara (tofu pulp). A more elaborate mix-and-match “teishoku set” meal allows you choose a rotating protein (black cod or Agedashi tofu to start), a choice of three vegetables, and a choice of house rice or made-to-order cauliflower rice, $25 per person.
Meanwhile, the space, near completion, has its own vibe: nature meets vinyl records. As light streams in, you could mistake it for a midcentury-modern home, all giant windows, Japanese maple, dark-black hues, and live moss accents. The mode includes a leather couch, wallpaper made in Japan, and an old ceremonial tea set. An antique bookcase features the couple’s longtime muse, Haruki Murakami. Up front, Japanese jazz records hover near the turntable, some donated from Nodoguro regulars. Famed hip-hop drummer Questlove, a Nodoguro fan himself, has promised to create a playlist for the house.
It’s the most striking dining room imagined in some time. Except, of course, there will be no diners.
“We're rolling out in a whole new world, under new circumstances,” says Ryan. “Not just the virus, but politically, socially, we have to re-envision not just restaurants, but society, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Though no one needs indoor dining rooms right now, the Roadhouses still want to share their new one. “We can do the car trunk thing,” says Ryan, of Tonari's curbside pickup option. But they hope diners will “take a little ride through the new space,” picking up their bag in the middle of the room at a designated time, stopping to soak in the details and stories behind it, as jazz music soars.
“I’m glad it took this long to open,” muses Ryan. “We ended up doing the interior ourselves. This is the time for everyone to innovate. It’s a different concept in its own way, but still true to us, born of the pandemic. It’s kind of exciting.”
Tonari (scheduled to open June 12)
Wednesday—Sunday, noon–2:30 p.m. and 4–6:30 p.m.
2838 SE Belmont St
Order online at tonaripdx.com