Gaya Gaya Sushi is the Mel's Diner of Portland sushi restaurants. The petite joint on West Burnside is a friendly place, full of neighborhood regulars who come to chow on generous portions of Japanese and Korean favorites and a lengthy inventory of ambitious sushi endeavors.
Gaya Gaya's specialty sushi rolls can be sloppy, cluttered with ingredients and over-sauced, but it would be a lie to say they weren't good. However, they're not at all in keeping with the clean and tidy manner typical of sushi or of Japanese food in general. Case in point: The Crunch Roll ($7) combines shrimp tempura, spicy crab, cream cheese, cucumber, tobiko, soy-honey sauce and nuts. It's impossible to itemize the distinct flavors, but, like a bacon cheeseburger with everything on it, it works just fine.
Some specialty creations are nearly identical. There's little difference between the Crunch Roll and the She's Sassy ($7), which stars the same cast of ingredients but adds a sliver of avocado that gets lost between the cream cheese and the soy-honey sauce (it shows up on no fewer than 22 of the restaurant's 30 or so specialty rolls). For purists, Gaya Gaya embraces standard sashimi and nigiri plates, as well as traditional California rolls (California Deluxe, $6) and Philly rolls ($4.50). A smallish but worthy seaweed salad ($4) is slightly sweet with light heat while the agedashi tofu ($3.95) has just enough crunch to add vital texture (but the sauce is a little too thin to finish the job). Baked green mussels ($5) were cooked to order, but arrived after we had finished eating. The four miniscule mollusks, topped with a sauce almost indiscernible from watery, melted Velveeta, aren't worth the wait.
Lunch specials include liberal helpings of beef teriyaki ($6.95), Korean short ribs ($7.95), beef donburi ($7.50) and other delights served with miso soup, salad and a mountain of rice. The tempura udon ($6.95) sports fried veggies with fresh noodles in a savory broth, and the chicken and vegetable yakisoba noodles ($5.95) come loaded with fresh vegetables. Best to arrive early for lunch, before a legion of Lincoln High School students overruns the place.
"Gaya gaya" is a Japanese expression used to articulate something noisy or chaotic, which typifies this eatery's fare right down to that ubiquitous soy-honey sauce. Still, Gaya Gaya gets points for being ambitious in a neighborhood rarely accused of having a culinary bent. It's also a welcome occurrence for two people to be able to dig on Japanese, spend less than 30 bucks and not leave starving. One word of very important advice to the management: Buy an iPod. A single Iron & Wine CD is too spare a musical repertoire for an entire restaurant. MIKE THELIN.