Maybe Portland's special this way. In other cities, the urban core is where you go to get your ethnic delicacies. You'd be a fool to leave Manhattan for Forest Hills to fill your nigiri jones: Everyone knows that the city's the epicenter of good eats. However, thanks in large part to the rising cost of real estate in Portland proper and the growing population on the outskirts, the suburbs offer many pockets of cultural diversity in living and eating. Our suburbs are officially "unagified" and the tastes and cultures have seeped into the habits of the Smiths next door and, most interestingly, vice versa.
Sushi is the pizza of the new millennium. And Tigard's Mugi, a recent addition to the scene, reflects this newly visualized Americana. Mugi is one of those restaurants that dare to resurrect and reanimate a simple, mundane ghost structure of suburbia's fast-food restaurant past. No small chore. Outside, they lure you in with a big S-U-S-H-I sign, in bold-face type, almost as large as the name Mugi itself. Inside, the owners have worked hard to alter your perceptions with curtains and fountains and kid-drawn pictures of Pikachu, among other Japanese visuals.
And what about the sushi? Does it place a new blip on the radar? Well, the nigiri are large and as fresh as that of any bar in town: tuna, halibut, salmon, squid, striped bass--all the usuals and some of the exotics. The rolls are on the smallish side but, given the smooth flavor of Mugi's softshell crab roll ($7.50), for instance, size is definitely not the issue.
Surprisingly, what will actually build the minions at Mugi are the abnormally large, attractively presented super bento combination platters. These are true heroines of this young Japanese hut. For anywhere from $12 to $15, you can loosen your belt and indulge in a long, multipronged Nippon extravaganza. The sukiyaki salmon starts with a standard cup of miso and tofu but soon transitions into a much more interesting fried tofu block covered in a sweet sesame oil. Somehow they get the crunchy part on the outside of the fried tofu perfect without drying out the middle.
Many other side dishes are included in the super bento: a couple of gyoza, various pickled vegetables, a warm spinach salad with sesame seeds, a bowl of simple white rice. Attention is turned to a different flavor every second. The variety is entertaining. The salmon itself is broiled only briefly, making everything pink with just the smallest reflection of orange in the plump middle. It is not covered, nor is it smothered, in the thick, sweet, homemade sukiyaki sauce. Instead it just rests on top of the fillet, intent on providing a mouthful of action to every chopstick grab or rip of the fingers. Also, the salmon portion isn't dinky. It is the worthy centerpiece to this version of suburban bento action.
Darting over to the west side of the city, into Beaverton's Cedar Hills, I Love Sushi has been a lighthouse of suburban rice and seaweed for a few years now. The location has two things immediately going for it: 1) It's sited on a high-traffic road, and 2) the Korean and Japanese grocery store in the same mini plaza means I Love Sushi never runs out of food.
Also, aside from the cuisine itself, I Love Sushi's got those visually stunning, spiral-bound, 10-by-14-inch laminated menus -- à la Denny's! -- with big ol' pictures of the featured items and full-sentence descriptions of almost every single thing on six hunger-inducing pages.
As Mugi does, I Love Sushi puts out a heartful rendition of raw fish for the masses, particularly with its show stoppers--mainly the stuff featured in those full-color pictures on the menu. This is also the stuff that's hard to find elsewhere. In fact, I don't know anyone else in town who would attempt the feat of bioengineering known as I Love Sushi's crazy roll ($8.95). This thing mashes together a dizzying array of fish and vegetables: Salmon, halibut, red snapper, spicy tuna, imitation crab, cream cheese, green onions and radish spouts are all collected under one encasement of sticky rice and seaweed. It's then rolled in a batter of panko bread crumbs and sent diving into the scalding hot oil for a few seconds to encrust the log-o'-fish in a first-rate, flaky tempura batter.
This deep-fried thing, with the heavenly batter that crumbles off deliciously, is something I Love Sushi likes to do with a lot of its maki. The crunchy California roll ($4.95) has got the extra crispy shell in full effect, as does the tempura roll ($7.50), which sports huge, deep-fried prawns and carrots in the middle of some honkin' sushi wheels. Any one of these rolls is an entire lunch. They are larger than life. Maki on steroids. Ah, we Americans love our food fried.
Really, damn near all of the sushi at I Love Sushi is successful in that wide-eyed "holy crap" kind of way. But what you might not instinctively explore about this restaurant is the shameless joy the chefs take in the preparation of a warm Korean bibimbob.
The bibimbob rice bowl is served with steamed carrots and cucumber slices, thinly sliced beef bulkogi and then topped with recently cracked fried egg, crowning the meal with a yellow bulb of glory. In general, bulkogi sauce is a mixture of soy, sugar, onions and sesame seeds. These wicked contrasts in the sauce make it salty and sweet concurrently, a liquid tug o' war suitable for a variety of meats: chicken, pork, beef. But the porous, chewy qualities of mid-grade beef, when matched with the pungent bulkogi sauce, mesh into one continuous entity in which there's no longer a distinct line between where bulkogi stops and beef begins. And this turns the bibimbob into a hot night on the town.
The suburban sushi is competent and filling, but it's the underrated Korean comfort food at I Love Sushi that should demand your attention.
4835 SW Pomona St., 977-5088.
Picks: Salmon super bento. Softshell crab maki. A booth near a fountain.
Nice touch: Kid-drawn Pikachus all over the sushi bar.
3486 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 644-5252. Lunch 11 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, dinner 4:30-10 pm Sunday- Thursday, 4:30 pm-2 am Wednesday- Saturday.
Picks: Korean bibimbob all the way. Try the crazy roll if you dare.
Nice touch: A big, colorful, glossy, spiral-bound menu with full descriptions of everything.