Japanese chain Afuri has a particular penchant for Portland, with an izakaya and two ramen shops in the city, plus another izakaya in downtown Beaverton. The newest Afuri Ramen and Dumpling opened in Slabtown in May, and it’s home to Afuri’s “Noodle Lab,” where all the bouncy noodles, rolls of pork chashu, and giant vats of broth are centrally produced for the Portland shops, prominently on view behind glass for customers to admire. In late June, Afuri made yet another move with Tanaka, a brand-new katsu sandwich joint, coffee shop, and Japanese-inspired bakery in downtown Portland (678 SW 12th Ave).
After giving Tanaka a couple months to smooth out the kinks, some Portland Monthly staffers and I stopped by for an office lunch break. The space is welcoming and expansive with both indoor and outdoor seating, making it one of the best new options downtown for a lunch date. You’re greeted by a case full of shiny, colorful pastries and an Instagram-friendly wall decoration reading, “Of everything in the world, who knew bread would bring all these beautiful people together?” (Bread, of course, is illuminated in cursive red neon lights.)
But Tanaka already faces plenty of competition in the Japanese bakery and katsu sandwich world here in Portland. Beaverton is home to Oyatsupan, where curry donuts, egg salad sandwiches, and shokupan loaves are produced with consistent quality at affordable prices. And downtown Portland is also home to the beloved Tokyo Sando cart, opened in February 2020, serving pork katsu sandos with black garlic and specials like shrimp katsu and scotch egg.
Our take, overall, is that you can find better baked goods at Oyatsupan, and better sandos at Tokyo Sando. But on days that call for a sit-down lunch downtown, perhaps as an escape from the office or between museum-going, Tanaka is a good bet. Here’s our rundown of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) dishes.
Order: Chicken katsu sando
Move over, Popeye’s—the newest chicken sandwich in town offers a fresh spin on the often played-out dish. The centerpiece is a juicy, lightly breaded chicken thigh that spans the entire slice of fluffy toasted house-baked shokupan bread. The traditional cabbage slaw gets subbed out for a very Portland kale-cabbage slaw that’s bright, tangy, and creamy.
Order: Eggplant sando
The same bread and fixings as the chicken katsu sando, but stuffed with a generous amount of breaded, super-tender Japanese eggplant. PoMo intern Matt Trueherz liked this even more than the beef katsu sando, thanks to the contrast in texture between the soft eggplant and crunchy breading.
Order: Pork katsu sando
While we still prefer the black garlic-tinged pork katsu at Tokyo Sando, this one is a solid entry. The pork is generously sized and super-juicy, though everything leans a bit plain—the cabbage salad could have used a bit of tang, or a bit more mayo.
Skip: Golden kiwi sando
Fruit, whipped cream, and white bread—what’s not to like? While the kiwis were super sweet and the cream was generous, the bread was a little stale on our visit, making this sando fall short of expectations.
Order: Matcha opera cake
Who knew a tiny square of cake could pack so many flavors and textures? The sponge cake has an earthy, slightly bitter matcha flavor that’s nicely complemented by the white chocolate-coffee flavored whipped cream, making it reminiscent of a tiramisu. But the real treat is the bottom of the cake, a crackly almond crunch crust with toffee-like butteriness.
Order: Miso chocolate chip cookie
This chewy, bittersweet chocolate-loaded cookie gets its dark golden brown color from a hint of miso, which doesn’t really make the cookie overly salty, but instead provides a nice depth of flavor and nuttiness. There’s a generous amount of chocolate, and a little bit of Maldon salt on top keeps one bite different from the next.
Skip: Yuzu danish
Did someone forget the salt? The crust, while buttery and flaky, is extremely bland, making it near impossible to eat when it isn’t covered with the delightfully tangy yuzu marmalade.