By Mattie John Bamman @ravenoustravelr
When it opened in 2007, Biwa delivered the gospel of Japanese izakaya to the Portland masses. At a time when karaage, gyoza and udon—both the words and the flavors—were still fresh to local tongues, owners Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz lured adventurous palates from all over the city with promises of seven-course omakase tasting menus and a booming soundtrack, in a purely Portland, semi-subterranean space in Southeast.
All that changed in 2016. In its ninth year, Biwa moved from its sultry divot into a room one-third the size, located down the hall. In its place, a new sister bar, Parasol, opened. The experiment didn't take; within a year, Parasol closed, and in July 2017, Biwa reclaimed its old space—but it hasn't stopped making changes.
Biwa now does counter service. It also does lunch. The omakase menus are gone, as are the playful cocktails briefly held over from Parasol. Drinks include sake, wine, beer and spirits, plus housemade sodas for a bruising $5.
On three recent visits, the entire menu, which is offered for both lunch and dinner, read as a greatest-hits lineup, including Biwa's ramen and cult-favorite burger. And there are some new menu items, centering on a fleet of bento boxes, available for eating in, takeout or delivery.
The bento box is a natural fit for the new menu, with five options ranging from $11 to $13. Choices include karaage, tonkatsu pork and vegetarian bento with kimchi croquettes, aptly described as "irresistible" on the menu.
Start with the tonkatsu bento box ($13). First of all, it's especially massive. The moist pork came wrapped in crispy golden panko crust, topped with tangy-sweet katsu sauce, and sliced so you can eat it with chopsticks. Accompaniments ranged from cuttingly bright slaw to an excellent, buttery rice vinegar- and tamari-marinated hard-boiled egg.
But the counter-service model fell flat as a Japanese drinking snacks experience.
Based on past meals, I wanted to keep ordering lots of small plates and drinks. But on one busy Saturday, the line at the counter dragged because the server taking orders was also tasked with explaining dishes and recommending and pouring sakes. On another, I requested the new poke bowl as an appetizer, and it arrived last to the table.
One bite of the pork gyoza ($9) made me temporarily forget those flaws. Satiny on one side, crunchy-crisp on the other, they're as good, if not better, than ever. Biwa's karaage fried chicken ($9) yielded a delicate, dusty crackle thanks to a gluten-free, potato flour and corn starch coating—squeeze the accompanying lemon for explosive aromatics.
Inconsistency was an issue. On one visit, the usually silky burger ($11) was a dry medium-well with nonexistent pork belly and a surprisingly cold bun. The udon noodle bowl ($10) had fat, chewy rice noodles and a vegetable fritter like a perfect onion ring, but a bland broth. And the new poke bowl ($11), featuring cubed Hawaiian hamachi, arrived dry and mildly fishy on one visit, fresh and zingy with more sauce and wakame seaweed the next.
With stiffer competition from a fleet of newly opened Japanese restaurants, Biwa was probably right to change its format. Nine months after its return to its old space, it is still in a state of flux, but it appears the old Biwa isn't returning. By my third meal, I had the new Biwa figured out—come for fast, excellent bento or a couple plates for dinner, skip the izakaya drinking snacks experience.