Maybe you haven't heard of Japan's infamous scoundrel of a raccoon dog, Tanuki. He's the portly, friendly-looking, big-balled statue greeting Japanese salarymen as they stream into an izakaya after work for drink, snacks and a good time.
But it won't be long before you hear about Portland's Tanuki, the latest local take on the a traditional beer- and-sake bar serving Japanese-inspired small plates. And that's just the way the wily animal spirit, known for his womanizing tricks and shape-shifting, would have it.
The newest arrival on Portland's izakaya scene heartily obliges those seeking such distractions. Chef-owner Janis Martin cooks with confidence and flair, crafting tasty tidbits and more substantial (though still small) noshes that are suited for sharing, sampling and, of course, sake. Prices are reasonable and in some cases even downright cheap. Every day offers an enticing steep discount on the menu, from $1 skewers to $2 Asahi pints.
Start with the skewers (all $3), called kushiyaki. Try the salt-and-pepper shrimp, moist broiled eel with a sansyo glaze or the miso-cured bay scallop, a six-inch stick threaded through six of the dime-size crustaceans. Sweet and tender, the scallops had just one flaw both times we tried them: They were served lukewarm. This isn't surprising—Martin does all the cooking in between running food and taking orders to help out the lone, overwhelmed server.
Move on to the smallest of three- or four-bite tastes: shishito peppers ($4), tossed with coarse sea salt, are pan-roasted until the charred skins start to separate from the pungent meat. Or try housemade gohan oshinko ($3)—crunchy pickles and rice. Martin says she spends most of her Mondays pickling vegetables, from the expected daikon to the more unusual okra kimchi.
Order any dish containing Martin's housemade tofu. Whether it's an oversized grilled-tofu skewer ($3) swabbed with sweet soy barbecue sauce or a small component of an unagi bento box ($10), her preparations will change the way you think of bean curd. Martin also uses true wasabi, something few Americans realize they've never actually tried—most "wasabi" in the states is made of mustard and horseradish powder.
Martin has spent years sharpening her culinary talents, traveling from highbrow Chicago restaurants to a sheep farm in New Zealand. After moving here, she spent eight months at Pok Pok.
Her steady hand extends to heavier dishes as well. Niku dango—wild boar, pork and rice meatballs ($6) over rice—had an elegant, light texture, complex flavor and a delicious Korean barbecue sauce. A Chinese-style crêpe stuffed with fish-sauce-braised pork shoulder ($7) was tender, toothsome and messy.
If you're feeling adventurous, request an omakase—you pick a dollar amount for the table ($15 per person should do it), and she'll pick what's fresh and maybe compose an off-the-menu item or two for you. You'll be glad you did.