Tanuki is a strange little world. Known for its food but appointed as a bar, chef-owner Janis Martin's Montavilla izakaya is a dim, nearly unmarked space frequented mostly by a small, self-selecting group of adventurous eaters and service-industry pros; its most prominent advertisement on the sidewalk is a chalkboard proclaiming what and whom it doesn't serve: "NO SUSHI, NO KIDS, WOW!"
What it does have are television screens tuned to hamster-themed sex cartoons or Japanese horrorsploitation, two perennially unused pinball machines in a narrow rear hallway and probably the most distinctive bar menu in the city, with Japanese-Korean-inflected small plates and ingredient combinations that often defy easy categorization.
Martin's izakaya has existed quietly in its new Southeast venue since last November. The bar went fallow for more than a year after departing its original, cramped Nob Hill space, when Oregon Liquor Control Commission red tape denied Tanuki a liquor license at the capacious Fremont location that now houses Carpaccio Trattoria.
Much of the former menu has survived. I've not yet seen the previous incarnation's signature battery of skewered duck hearts—a debaucherously Temple of Doom culinary experience—but the bar recently resurrected its tan tan noodles ($8), a spicy Sichuan dish with as many variations as cooks. Tanuki's version includes thick udon noodles topped with a flaming-hot-and-sour fermented bean and peanut sauce; it might blast the caps off your taste buds, but it hurts good.
Still, those noodles are also the weightiest item on the menu, and you'll want to save some room for everything else. It's best simply to cede control to Martin and order the omakase (a deal at $15 to $30 per person), a seemingly unending procession of on- and off-menu items ranging from garlic-bomb kimchi and Shishito pepper bar snacks to hearty mini-entrees.
But if one person gets omakase, everyone has to; Tanuki also never splits checks or runs multiple credit cards, and rarely suffers a party of three at a four-top table. The food is served as it gets made, not coursed out in fine-dining kabuki theater, which leads to occasional gluts and famines.
But while the rules are sometimes prickly, the service is not, and the food is a shambling parade of ingenuity and surprise. In particular, the Kani XO ($12) is one of my favorite dishes in the city, with crab claws topped with a scallion, ginger and preserved scallop sauce—a bitter-sweet-salty accent that turns crab into candy. Other on-menu highlights include a gently kimchi-marinated hanger steak ($9), addictive spicy squid jerky ($5) and mussels broiled with pollack tripe and pollack roe custard ($5).
The omakase's off-menu items are often a testing ground—the hanger steak, for example, was previously a sidebar treat—but croissant-flaky kimchi bacon buns are standbys, as are a rotating cast of strong-accented oysters. The only major misstep recently was a snail dish in which the snail's natural earthiness mixed with similar notes in soy and sesame to create a taste, in the words of my dining companion, "like an old garage smells."
The drinks are a bright spot, in particular the Dejima ($7), a mixture of gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, rhubarb bitters and cucumber served ice cold in a cedar masu (square, wooden drinking cup). Amid the flavors of the meadow, dipping into the troughlike masu feels a bit like sipping directly from an artisanal spring that gets you drunk. But even without the alcohol, the strong cocktail of seafood, pickle and spice should be enough to leave you a little unsteady.
- Order this: Omakase ($15-$30 per person).
- Best deal: A 5-6:30 pm happy hour offers $1 kimchi dogs, $2 seaweed salad and $2 kimchi bacon cheese buns.
- Iâll pass: Omakase means âI leave it to you.â Itâs trust, people. Passing just isnât sporting. If it looks strange, just put it in your mouth.
EAT: Tanuki, 8029 SE Stark St., 477-6030, tanukipdx.com. 5-10 pm (or later) Tuesday-Saturday. $-$$$.