Portland’s Outcast Paradise. Yakuza Makes It Happen. Yum.
Yakuza Japanese Pub and Lounge: 16 kinds of sake and a kids’ menu. That’s Yakuza and that’s Portland where being outcast has been raised to an art by a community obsessed with food, originality, and raising kids.
I had to wait a couple days before I wrote this report. I mean you know what I’m saying. People do not want to read some breathless, gushing piece about a place they’ll never see and – sadly for them – will probably never enjoy.
But I’ve gotten hold of myself now and I believe I am able to write a balanced, professional critique of this little neighborhood joint in one of Portland’s countless faceless neighborhoods where eateries seem to pop up like mushrooms after a decent rain. And it does rain here. Decently.
The owner/founder of Yakuza is an artist named Dayna McErlean, who came here from New York in about 1999. Dayna was drawn to Portland’s reputation as an outsider place and she chose the name Yakuza for her first restaurant (she now owns two and is planning for more). The name comes from the Japanese word for outsider – which in that culture simply meant the butchers and bartenders and other itinerates who chose a life without health plans or retirement contributions in favor of artistic freedom.
Another version of the Yakuza story has it that they were the Robin Hoods of the culture, who robbed from the rich to feed the poor. And some say they’re disgraced Samurai. Or just plain hoodlums. Usually tattooed, some say they’re the “bad hands” in society. You pick your story. Just don’t fail to try Portland’s own Yakuza if you’re in town.
The Yakuza website describes Yakuza’s exigesis this way: During the mid-Edo Period of Japanese feudalism the Yakuza caste was made up of misfits and undesirables easily identified by their elaborate tattoos and non-conformist hairdos. The Yakuza formed extended “families” and lived off the feudal grid in their own secluded villages and neighborhoods. Our restaurant name pays homage to these original black sheep of a highly structured society. We like to think they’d feel right at home in Portland, amongst our own merry bands of beautiful outcasts.
Yakuza’s site is a building that I swear must have served its time as a garage. It still has two bay doors on the front and one on the back. Because Dayna is an artist first, she has created a serene, sophisticated interior that speaks to her real wishes for communal dining, with long communal tables and benches instead of four-tops and sixers. Dayna believes great food is best served shared.
She has painted gorgeous oversize murals on the walls, and included a repurposed mid century fireplace now filled with candles. OK. There’s also a back dining room and a splendid outdoor Japanese garden for warm weather.
And if that weren’t enough, she rents out a “cabin” in the garden for about $100. bucks a night – short or long stay- that includes a hot tub and a little kitchen and a cold plunge pool and an outdoor shower. If you are planning a business trip to Portland, this would certainly take the edge off. Highly recommended.
But back to all those sakes and the kids menu. In Portland, or at least in this Northeast innercity neighborhood, kids rule and hip families drop in pushing strollers so that the kids and the parents can get a quick bite that is – well – just stupendous.
I’m used to David Chang’s Momufuko in New York and I’d swear he learned his chops at Yakuza. The same hip vibe, the same but different amazing menu, and great service, except I never see strollers in NYC.
First things first. For our kids, aged 5 and 9,they brought the kid’s fave which turns out to be chicken or salmon katzu with rice. Priced at $3. And $2. This is simply astonishing and it was served within 3 minutes of sitting down, on an artfully designed paper placemat with a Japanese design and crayons.
Then, for the adults, we perused the extensive bar menu. Actually none of us chose a sake. I had the Ryehattan, one more notch in my gun on a worldwide search for the perfect Manhattan. This came pretty damn close. Made with Old Overholt Rye, Bonal, Cynar and a drop of Vanilla Cherry Bark Bitters, this drink was bitter, sweet, cold, beautiful, and just the right size in the martini glass, finished off with a deep preserved local sweet cherry.
Jay had a beet Martini, which was a bit murky looking, reddish, made from beet infused vodka, lime, salt and simple – whatever that is. Less successful to my mind, but that mainly had to do with the cloudy look of it.
Then we moved on to ordering small plates, which range from $9. To $16. And are meant to be shared and best eaten with chop sticks.
Soon the food began arriving. Cara demonstated her expert management of a menu and got us a scrumptious salad of cucumber, avocado, sesame and Togarashi with a sumptuous sesame oil dressing. So good we ordered a second one.
We couldn’t help ourselves. We ordered various sashimis and hand rolls. The little kids kept cleaning us out. But we managed to wolf down a Tuna Poke, made with ahi tuna, avocado, scallion and Calabria chili. Then a salmon tataki made with local Sockeye Ikura, blood orange oil, and grilled green onions.
By this time we were totally out of control, and inhaled an albacore with gala apple, Italian sweet pepper, jalapano Ponzu and baby cilantro – outrageous.
The chef, David Gaspar de Alba sent over his new creation, sashimi with local pear, avocado and jalapeno. And we ordered more. Next came a handroll of Spicy Crab as well as a Yakuza roll, seasonal vegetables with crisp Japanese eggplant.
By this time, we had lost all reason and ordered braised back ribs with Q sauce, cilantro sprouts and sesame, a Yakuza burger napped in chevre, catsup and spicy mayo with a side of shoestring potatoes. When the waitress came back and asked if we wanted anything else, we said we’d finish off with the black cod, pan seared with carrot, white miso and maple.
Did we want dessert? No we did not. We were in a state of stupefied pleasure. All we wanted to do was rub a little of it over our faces and down our throats and maybe behind our ears and knees. But that was IT.
And I just have to tell you that the bill was well south of a hundred bucks and last week I ate a $1000.a plate dinner in New York for a bunch of insider foodies that was so predictable, yee gods they even had those tasteless baby vegetables on the plate. Didn’t they get the memo? And the boneless short rib entrée looked like a brownie on the plate – drowned in some god awful 70% cocoa black sauce. The whole this was so forgettable, precious beyond belief and that’s all I can remember.
Ah Portland. Let’s hear it for the Yakuza world view. The food in this town is new, it’s local, it’s sophisticated and it’s everywhere.
Yakuza Japanese Pub and Lounge, 5411 NE 30th Av., Portland,Or 97211 503-450-0893Pin It