If you get the opportunity at some future point to have Japanese omakase (お任せ), please do it; especially if that opportunity arises at Tanuki in Southeast Portland, just west of the redline. We call this experience ‘chef’s choice’, but I like other various translations such as ‘I’ll leave it to you’ and ‘entrusted’. Name your per-eater price, and the chef – in this case the delightful owner Janis Martin – will craft a line-up of small dishes with huge flavor that arrive at your table with the persistence of lapping ocean waves. Combine these fresh culinary miracles with an equally constant flow of small-batch sake, cheap Asian beer, and sensational Japanese whiskey, and you have the makings of a experience that will stretch one hour into five without anyone at the table knowing how or when it got dark outside. (You also have the reason why this “daily exercise” took a day off).
The thing is, omakase is not at all particular to Tanuki. Nor, obviously, is sake or beer. What makes omakase at Tanuki feel special is the establishment’s rag-tag sensibility. You’d better know the address (8029) if you go, because there’s no sign on or above the door. My longtime friend, Eric, and I arrived a few minutes before opening and, from the locked door and look of the place, momentarily thought we’d have to find different digs than this out-of-business business. But then the deadbolt popped free and our absolutely adorable server for the night set up the discreet sandwich board that announced in scrawled pink chalk “No sushi / No kids”. Then she invited us into the dining room. It feels like a lower Manhattan performance garage / studio apartment / storage facility borrowed each night for the purpose of serving some food. The sparely placed tables themselves seem foreign between the well-stocked bar, Ikea showroom sitting space, and piles of boxes with provisions in the corner – mostly beer. A card table holds two self-serve jugs of water – one that broke during the night – and a garage door remains halfway open to a parking lot out back. Pin-up girls from alcohol-sponsored calendars adorn the wall near the bathroom, and two huge television screens in opposing corners are inescapable (all night, Eric watched soap operas out of his peripheral vision, and I was oppressed by blood-bathed Korean and Japanese cult grotesquerie). A hastily plugged-in stereo perched on the sill of the covered storefront window blares away. Everything is dark when you start, and it just gets darker and more luscious from there.
I know very little about what I ate. I mean, of course I know what muscles looks like and what nori is. But specific details regarding preparation and minor ingredients of the twelve plus dishes we were privileged to taste remain a mystery. Our server announced each one as it landed on the table, but the ambient sensory chaos conspired against comprehension. I rarely followed up because it really didn’t matter. What mattered was diving unabashedly into each offering. Not everything worked, but the rewards are more than worth the risks. And seriously: Japanese whiskey.
Food and drink deepen the environment. The environment bolsters everything you taste. Of course, the night was biased to begin with. I was in exceptional company, and together we were willing to let table after table around us turn over as we staunchly occupied our place in the middle. It also strokes the ego to have one’s server sincerely name you “drinking champs.” So omakase if you can, but have some bus fare ready and don’t assume you’re driving home. We didn’t.