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April 27th, 2005 KELLY CLARKE | z-Bite Club
 

The Star Fish

     
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On the wall directly across from Ken "Taki" Kawahara's compact sushi counter is a huge bulletin board studded with more than 50 Polaroid photos. Nearly every shot shows the same tableau: Taki, a sandy-haired Japanese man dressed in a white ceremonial jacket, mouth agape in a scream or smile, one hand gripping a patron's shoulder, the other waggling a "hang-loose" salute. In one Polaroid snapshot, Taki is perched next to a pale man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a familiar sardonic expression. It's Dennis Miller. The comedian has penciled a note on the white strip: "Sushi GOD Taki!!!"

"He was a good man," Taki says as he takes a blowtorch to the top of our Kryptonite rolls: silky, spicy, molten rounds of scallops, crab, salmon and shiitake mushrooms. "Though sometimes I didn't know what he was talking about."

Bite Club isn't a regular-yet-at Sushi Time, the tiny Southwest Portland restaurant Taki owns with his wife, Jackie. A reader tipped us off to this lime-green Japanese joint tucked away in a crappy strip mall kittycorner from Washington Square-a locale so stereotypically awful that it seems destined to play host to great Asian food.

But by our second visit, Bite Club and our fellow gluttons have already figured out the best way to order Sushi Time's overflowing plates: from salmon nigiri enlivened with lemon juice and impossibly light-tasting hunks of various sashimi and cucumber drizzled with vinegary dill oil to tiny plates of mayonnaisey sweet snow crab paired with florets of raw broccoli ($3-$10). We recommend just forking over $10 per person and letting Taki choose whatever fresh fish strikes his mood.

As the sushi chef works, he talks. A lot. In less than 30 minutes, we learn of Taki's brushes with celebrities like Miller, Don Johnson and Dan Marino, his previous restaurant in Santa Barbara, his trips to Manila and Guam to teach Hilton Hotel chefs how to make sushi. Of New York stick-ups and secret-stealing fellow chefs at Nobu, the famed Big Apple sushi palace where he says he worked. Of growing up poor and working long hours in his father's sushi shop in Japan.

Only his fingers, flying over vinegary flats of rice, move faster than his mouth. You just want to hug him. And then unplug him.

He hasn't had many star sightings since he opened Sushi Time last year. "Oregon's not good for celebrities," he says, jerking his head toward the bulletin board. "Just a sportcaster from KATU." He says he wants to help people "be well." He spends his days immersed in Sushi Time's soundtrack of Miami Vice-era synth music, concocting new healthy recipes for what he calls "vitamin sushi."

By the end of our meal, Taki has draped his signature jacket (part of what he calls his "super-chef uniform") over the shoulders of one of our manly companions. Bite Club finds ourself holding a samurai sword and grinning as Jackie snaps a photo of our group, with Taki hunkered down in the middle, waggling his hand in a "hang-loose" sign.

Dennis Miller was right.


If you meet any hungry celebrities, please direct them to Sushi Time, 8610 SW Hall Blvd., 641-3671.

Taki Kawahara worked as the head chef at Aomatsu, Corvallis’ only sushi restaurant, for three years before moving to Portland.

 
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