David Edwards spent most of 2020 preparing to open his first restaurant during a pandemic. He wasn't prepared, however, to have to hold a grand opening while Portland was experiencing historically toxic air from wildfires.
"It was just a whole other layer," says Edwards, chef and owner of Nanban on Southeast Water Avenue. "It was a challenge we did not foresee."
In a way, Nanban seems perfectly suited for COVID times. The Japanese comfort food spot serves up sauce-drenched carby delights like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki—chewy soba noodles topped with a thin, savory crepe, mushrooms or meat, and smothered in rich, tomatoey sauce.
But opening the exact week Portland became shrouded in smoke due to megafires around the state wasn't exactly a challenge Nanban could have seen coming.
Prior to the September launch, Edwards and Nanban's staff had already spent months figuring out how to open a COVID-safe operation. Working out of a small, narrow restaurant under the Hawthorne Bridge, they decided to offer only delivery and takeout.
Offering only food to go gave Nanban the advantage of starting small at a time when restaurants were being forced to downsize. But it also meant Edwards and his team could design a menu specifically for takeout. While developing the food lineup, they tested to see if a dish still tasted good after it sat out for an hour, and subjected it to "the angry driver test," jiggling each meal around in a takeout container. Items that became cold, mushy or messy were axed, and the pickled slaw-topped pork katsu and fried chicken sandwiches that passed were made to fit snugly inside a takeout box.
Partly because of all the trials and tribulations that Nanban had already been through, when wildfire smoke engulfed Portland and produced historically bad air quality, Edwards decided to go ahead with the grand opening anyway. To his surprise, they served plenty of people.
"We had a positive interaction with every customer that came in," he says. "It was almost like they had gone through some kind of crucible to get to us."
UPDATE: Nanban will continue to offer pickup and delivery during the lockdown.
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