A handmade sign hangs in the men's room of Shigezo Izakaya, promising the purchase of "a fancy Japanese toilet" to match the one in the ladies' lavatory once the restaurant hits 50,000 customers. (The meter charting this progress is in the shape of a commode seat; line-drawn cartoon men literally ooh and ahh at the prospect.) In recent days, this fundraising effort has been overshadowed by other efforts, other signs: Fliers promoting benefits and vigils for earthquake and tsunami victims are pasted in the foyer, along with a donation jar. But less than a week after the Pacific disaster, a group of Japanese customers could be seen celebrating a birthday in Shigezo's private party room—when a busboy brought out the cake, he was draped in a sparkling gold kimono that made him look a little like Elvis in a Vegas revue. Festivities go on; the sushi chefs still greet arriving customers with shouts; satisfied diners still bang a giant drum after each meal; and Shigezo will get its toilet.
Shigezo is a merry place, the kind of restaurant where toasts spill across aisles. Thickly hewn wooden beams—some as massive as oak trunks—divide the dining room into the sorts of cozy alcoves where the tipsy businessmen in Kurosawa's Ikiru might have forgotten their cares, except with Blazers games on the TV sets above the sushi bar. It is unassuming and inexpensive for the Park Blocks: For $15, you can get a great meal, and for $30, you can wobble out the door not needing to eat again until the next night. Since the restaurant is the first continental U.S. outpost of a Japanese chain, few items on the menu are a departure from the basic fare found in suburban Tokyo noodle shops; nearly everything is an outrageous success.
The standout of the daunting appetizers menu (the place is designed for drinking Kirin with nibbles) is the gyoza ($4.75), three cabbage-and-pork-filled dumplings that present a delectable conundrum: You'll want to keep sampling the thin, pan-fried crust before it has cooled enough to eat without risk of scalding. The okonomiyaki ($5.95), an egg pancake filled with pork, squid and green onions, is the most exotic starter, combining a lot of strong flavors into a griddle-seared blend, like a teriyaki seafood omelet. The skewers are less impressive, though reasonably priced enough for trial and error: chicken and (especially) potato items are worth a try, but panko-covered mozzarella ($2.95) is just an Eastern cheese stick.
The entrees aren't so wide-ranging, and don't need to be. There is invention on the specials menu, with the kakuni pork finding an alchemy between pork belly, tofu and a boiled egg yolk. But this is primarily a house of rib-sticking staples. The katsu curry ($10.25), a standard fast-food order in Japan, is both massively portioned and embarrassingly delicious, the distinctively sweet stew topped with a panko-breaded chicken cutlet and heaped with potatoes and carrots. (There's a vegetarian version as well.) Only one item betters it: the tonkotsu shoyu ramen ($9.50-$13.75), with housemade noodles, a pork-marrow and soy broth, and a slice of chashu barbecued pork flank so tender it melts apart at the touch of a plastic soup spoon. The ramen is both homestyle and decadent, like living in a log cabin freshly built from endangered redwoods.
The genius of Shigezo is not that it does something new—it's how sublimely skilled it is at resurrecting the old. (Even the obligatory miso soup, $1.50, is a revelation here, so rich and subtly flavored that each sip is distinct.) This izakaya immediately jumps onto the short list of Portland Japanese joints, up there with Yakuza and Biwa—but less ambitious than either of those locations, more interested in perfecting the kind of standby dishes that accompany everyday celebrations. The place deserves to be flush with business.
- Order this: Tonkotsu shoyu ramen, the big bowl ($13.75).
- Best deal: Gyoza, fist-sized cabbage dumplings, three for $4.75.
- Iâll pass: The yakiniku steak ($12.50) is fine, but seems to be cut from an awfully thin steer.
EAT: Shigezo Izakaya, 910 SW Salmon St., 688-5202, shigezo-pdx.com. Lunch and dinner 11:30 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday and 11:30 am-midnight Friday; dinner 2 pm-midnight Saturday and 2 pm-11 pm Sunday. $$-$$$ Moderate.