Portlanders are obsessed with authenticity, especially when it comes to Asian food. We'll huddle for an hour outside a tarp-sided shanty, poring over a menu and sprinkling pompous little annotations ("Yes, bread really is the normal accompaniment in Thailand"). Or we'll venture into places we're more tolerated than welcome to eat offal our ancestors discreetly made into sausage. All along, we congratulate ourselves on being too sophisticated for pad Thai.
Smallwares is a firecracker dropped at our feet. The Northeast Fremont Street restaurant is consciously inauthentic and refreshingly peculiar, gamely ripping flavor free from tradition with extraordinary results.
The lanterns shed a lot of light. Not literally, as Smallwares is dim even in daylight and darker as the night goes on and its soundtrack of MTV Jams-era rap and R&B gets louder. As a metaphor, though, it's hard to top the round bulbs enmeshed in nylon netting that hang from the ceiling in the very De Stijl dining room that's modern and mainly red and black. They recall antique glass Japanese fishing floats, but the mimeos were made on first-time restaurateur Johanna Ware's budget.
Rather than skitter around Asia getting baked while learning to ape exotic street foods, Ware honed her techniques at Nostrana and New York's Public and Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Smallwares has often been compared to nearby Aviary, but I find it has more in common with Southeast's Wafu. Wafu and Smallwares both put a big emphasis on drinks in their warm bars. Here, it's a separate room that's open until 2 am. While Aviary's menu is anarchy, both Smallwares and Wafu arrange a selection of about 20 dishes in ambiguous groupings, with prices and portions generally growing larger toward the bottom. Ware and Wafu chef Trent Pierce seem interested in pushing their seafood offerings hard to landlubbers. And both have large portions of Japanese noodles as cheap crowd-pleasers, while Aviary makes no such concession.
Smallwares' noodles are in udon soup with chicken ($14) and the thinner somen ($13), which is lathered with a Korean chili paste and grounded by the earthiness of black strands of fibrous hijiki seaweed. They pair well with chicken lollipops—wing-sized pieces of chicken fried on the bone served with Sriracha mayonnaise ($11).
Bolder orders are rewarded. A tofu and strawberry salad ($9) is a delight, with tartness from sherry vinegar and an unexpected umami kick from shavings of dried and smoked tuna elevating simple, silky tofu.
Fried kale ($10), coated in rice batter and covered with smoky candied bacon and a light dressing of bright mint and fish sauce, is culinary wizardry—I can't figure how one tiny plate can smoothly juggle five huge flavors. Mapo dofu ($9), on the other hand, sticks to rich and meaty, with an egg custard and salty pork topping. I loved the heat of oxtail curry ($17) with crisp plantain chips and a salsa of Scotch bonnet peppers. Prying tender meat from a bony tail always seems a chore, but I thoroughly enjoyed scooping the curry gravy over rice.
The heat drove me to drink, which is fine because Smallwares' drink program is also endearingly quirky. Rather than grouping by type of alcohol, it's organized by flavor, with fruity beers like Upright's wheat ($5) sitting alongside junmai sake and Elk Cove's riesling ($11). Funky, earthy, fizzy and rich drinks also get their own categories. It takes a moment to get your bearings, but the odd format is ultimately effective. We found ourselves quickly alcohol agnostic, zipping between sake, rosé, cocktails and Pilsner as appropriate for each course.
Drink and eat enough at Smallwares, and you may feel you've gone native—whatever that means for a restaurant of no particular place, but very much of this time.
- Order this: Mapo dofu ($9), fried kale ($10) and somen noodles ($13).
- Best deal: Sho Chiku Bai sake ($4)
- Iâll pass: Chicken lollipops ($11).
EAT: Smallwares, 4605 NE Fremont St., 971-229-0995, smallwarespdx.com. 11:30 am to 2 am Monday-Friday, 4 pm-2 am Saturday-Sunday. $$-$$$.