Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was as unremarkable as the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting up the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. A diner sat at one near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy. The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Zen-like calmness, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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Nue: The World’s Street Food


It’s the thing nowadays to have street food at restaurants. Many of us have gone traveling abroad that noshing on things foreign is not the hesitation it once was. International food is now within easy reach, a cookbook, restaurant or food truck away. These are exciting times if your palate runs far and wide. 

In Seattle, up until now, street food has been relegated to a specific national cuisine. Three years ago, Nue opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with a dedication to global street food, bites from all parts of the world, a result of the food finds of co-owners Chris Cvetkovich and Uyen Nguyen when they go traveling abroad. An ambitious agenda, to be sure. The name nue is based on a mythical Japanese chimera whose body is composed of different animals. One manifestation combines monkey, snake, tiger and tanuki, a metaphor for the culinary variety one should expect to find inside.

Take Filipino Tosilog for instance, a popular breakfast item in the Philippines. I personally like fried rice and eggs in the morning, so this combination along with tocino (cured pork meat) sounded like a winner. The meat is a marriage of sweet and savory from straightforward ingredients of salt, sugar, spices and lots of garlic and sticky from caramelization. The fried rice (sinangag) is prepared with nothing more than soy sauce, green onions and bits of fried garlic, served alongside two sunny-side-up eggs. I only wish Nue was closer to me for breakfast. 

Filipino Tosilog

Chengdu Chicken Wings Tower (top image) has quite the following. This is quite understandable. It can be ordered by themselves or paired with waffles. The presentation is spectacular, about a half dozen fried wings stacked vertically, pinned together by two bamboo skewers and underlain by a pool of bracing dipping sauce. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the batter their characteristic bite and numbing sensation. Dipped in the sauce of red bird’s-eye chiles, mint, basil, lime juice and fish sauce, the wings took me to heaven. 

Sunny Bunny is a curry dish based on bunny chow from South Africa. Truly street food, kind of like a bread bowl, it was a staple of East Indian laborers who worked in and around Durban but now popular all over South Africa. Nue uses a partial Pullman bread loaf hollowed out in the middle and filled with a thick, bold masala curry of chicken and vegetables and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. If the original bunny was made to be portable for migrant workers and the torn-off bread pieces used for dipping, Nue nixes all that by generously ladling the curry to overflowing, obliging you to use fork and knife. 

South African Sunny Bunny

How do the chefs at Nue make those perfect fried eggs?

I’m usually indifferent to cornbread. This changed a bit when I had Nue’s based on a Caribbean recipe that includes pineapple and shredded coconut. It’s moist, slightly sweet and buttery, that competes with another terrific cornbread that I had at the Turquoise Room (La Posada Inn, Winslow, AZ). 

Cornbread with Whipped Butter and Maple Syrup

Others in my dining group had Puerto Rican Mofongo (plantain mash, smoked chicken and fried eggs) and Mexican Desayuno Michoacana (chorizo, sweet potato, pasilla pepper, avocado crema, fried tortillas and eggs). 

Nue’s plan is to change the menu periodically based on exciting culinary finds throughout the world. These have appeared in the past or are now on the menu: Israeli Shakshuka, Syrian salad, Dutch Patat Oorlog, Egyptian ‘Eggs Basyounadict,’ United Nations Fried Rice, East Indies Brussels Sprouts, Ecuadorian Biche de Pescado, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and so on. With all this variety, there is one potential drawback. For sharing, an eclectic mix poses the risk of choosing food with no complementary flavors. In fact they can compete, as I and dining companions have found on two separate occasions. The Sunny Bunny fought the chicken wings and tosilog for dominance, for example. That’s not to say that the dishes in themselves weren’t good. The three just mentioned were outstanding, in fact. Don’t let that stop you from dropping in. Nowhere else in Seattle can you find such a culturally diverse menu of high quality. Like the Japanese monster, Nue boldly embodies its mixed bag of diverse elements.

Nue
1519 14th Ave
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 257-0312

Of Obsidian, Lava Casts and Waterfalls: Newberry National Volcanic Monument


The lava sparkles. In a sea of black, rocks reflect light like mirrors. It’s eerie enough to walk through a lava field where the ground beneath seems scorched by a cataclysmic firestorm, inhospitable to life, meager vegetation struggling to stay alive.

A pine tree gets a rare foothold

Here in Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Oregon there also happens to be an enormous obsidian flow, one of the very few in the world that can be explored on foot. Obsidian shines because it is glass created by Mother Nature.

Welcome to eastern Oregon, a stark contrast to the greenness west of the Cascade Mountains. The landscape is strewn with volcanoes and volcanic fields thanks to the relentless creep of plate tectonics. When hot lava consists almost entirely of silicon dioxide (SiO2), cools fast enough and free of gas bubbles, obsidian is created. I never thought of pumice in this way, but it is likewise a volcanic glass, also high in SiO2, where explosive events trap gas bubbles before cooling. It isn’t shiny as a consequence. Ancient peoples treasured obsidian for making tools and weapons, particularly arrowheads.

Because of glass shards, there’s a sign on the trail that warns of taking Fido for a nature walk or your traipsing through with flip flops or sandals. The hazard reminds me of a time when I saw three or four young ladies from Japan trying to negotiate the steep, rocky trail to the top of Diamond Head crater—in high heels. I don’t believe they made it very far.

The flow area is about one square mile (2.6 km2). The easy loop trail is 0.6 mile (1 km). At the far end, there’s a good view of the Newberry Caldera, the large shield volcano that dominates the park after which it’s named.

Newberry Caldera

The higher I went, the more black glass I saw, some in spectacular piles, some still in layers.

The most astonishing fact was that the Big Obsidian Flow, which is what this attraction is called, was created only 1,300 years ago. That must’ve scared the living bejesus out of the local peoples who likely fled. Locals today would flock toward it, smart phones in hand.

Casts of Thousands

Halfway into the monument is an attraction called Lava Cast Forest. Imagine old growth trees suddenly inundated by lava flows. Instant incineration, you’d think. Not quite. Turns out that the steam from larger flaming trees caused slow-moving lava around them to cool down and harden. After the trees eventually rotted or burned away, molds were left behind. Vertically oriented hollows look like small man-made wells.

The longest horizontal mold is about 50 ft long. I might’ve found it if I walked far enough on the trail.

The ‘forest’ is at the end of a 9-mile gravel road that takes a bit of patience to drive and that’s guaranteed to cake your car in mucho dust.

Twist of Fate

Another curious sight in the lava fields are pines, some very ancient, whose trunks appear twisted, the biggest ones in tight coils. It’s a remarkable adaptation to a hostile, arid environment, the most efficient way to channel water to the whole tree from a single tap root that extracted scant moisture from the ground while the other roots expended energy just to keep anchor.

Twin Falls

At the edge of Newberry Caldera is Paulina Falls. It’s a little odd to see it in an area as desolate as eastern Oregon, but here it was, not one but two. They spill over from Paulina Lake which replenishes not from rain but hot springs and snowmelt.

The falls are a short hike from the parking lot.

Lava Butte

Oregon seems to have more than its share of volcanoes, all part of the Cascade range, which also includes Mount St. Helens. Mount Hood stands majestically over the horizon in Portland as much as Mount Rainier does in Seattle. On a clear day, you can see several at once if you’re high enough, as we did when we hiked to the top of Smith Rock.

More numerous yet are cinder cones, which look like miniature volcanoes, but are really a conical pile of cinders, like the ones used for landscaping, that were spewed from and settled around a vent. I noticed many as I drove along US 97, a major north-south thoroughfare east of the Cascades.

One of the largest is showcased in the monument. Lava Butte stands at 5,970 ft (1,820 m). My wife and I took a shuttle to the top from where we saw the crater and walked an interpretive trail.

Lava Butte (image from wikipedia)

I was amazed by the size of the lava field surrounding the base.

Where to Refresh

After all this outdoor activity, especially in warmer months, your stomach can work up an appetite and throat get pretty dry. Over the years, I’ve eaten at many places in and around Bend but only a few stood out.

I’ve yet to find any place better for a great dinner than Diego’s Spirited Kitchen, located in Redmond about 15 miles north of Bend, a Mexican restaurant with a menu more interesting than a typical one. Despite that and I’ve had this three times already, Diego’s flat iron steak is hard to beat, topped with an incredible sauce reduction and blue cheese butter. It doesn’t sound very Mexican yet it’s one of their specialties. Forget the side of fries and opt for green rice.

The margaritas are potent, none made from a mix and all customizable from a long list of premium tequilas. Gratis tortilla chips are wonderfully light and crispy served with a very good, zippy salsa.

Voted by Yelpers as one of the top 100 places to eat in 2017 and 2018, Bangers & Brews serves an excellent hot dog with suds to gulp it down with. The sausage, one of a dozen to choose from, is grilled nicely with casings that make each bite snap. The way it works is you order sausage, two toppings and one sauce. There’s enough variety to satisfy everyone. One of their signature sides is Bacon Gorgonzola Fries that is a meal in itself, savory and rich, but even its small portion is more than two people should sensibly eat. Craft beers from several local breweries are available.

Bacon gorgonzola fries

Smoked polish, sauerkraut, relish and whole grain mustard

Hot smoked andouille, caramelized onions, sweet peppers and spicy mustard

Bakeries are always nice places to get freshly made bread and pastries but few have outstanding meals to start the day. The savory morning sandwiches at Sparrow Bakery are the stuff of legend. Its croque monsieur combines slices of brioche, ham and bechamel all topped with Gruyere.

The most popular seller is bacon breakfast sandwich, a messy but delicious creation of poached egg, bacon and arugula aioli in a toasted croissant.

Bend is a popular winter sports destination but it should be part of the summer’s exploration of outstanding geological sites.

Getting Serious About Restaurant Dar Hatim’s Pastilla (Fes, Morocco)


“It’s jam.”

So said Fouad when I asked him if the reddish chile seed-laden paste was harissa. He chuckled. A little dab on my tongue told me it was ground up fresh chiles and preserved lemon, salty, intense, definitely spicy.

Later, as the pastilla was served, he pointed at the plate of powdered sugar.

“This is cocaine.”

Another big grin.

What’s with all the clowning around? He definitely had a refreshing sense of humor.

Fouad was confident that I would thank him when he picked my wife and me up from our riad to have dinner at his restaurant. He said it was a two-hour drive when it was only 15 minutes. We walked into Fes’ old medina near the tanneries (our noses told us) and up into a dark, narrow alley, which we’d never have found on our own. Once we walked through the front door, it was another world, a beautifully decorated dar and restaurant with linens and silverware.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla (Restaurant Dar Hatim) was a tour de force, head and shoulders above the pastilla I had the day before, also in the medina.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla

The filling for pastilla of shredded chicken, almonds, egg, cinnamon, sugar and herbs was moist, savory, just a touch sweet and the phyllo dough casing was shatteringly crispy and oil-free. Unlike most pastillas, ours were not dusted with sugar or cinnamon. But we did have ‘coke.’ If I ever have this dish again, it will be compared to hers.

“You’re a lucky man,” we beamed after we polished off every last morsel.

“No, no, she’s lucky to have me,” he chuckled only a few feet away from where she stood. “I make her laugh all the time.” Karima just smiled. Seriously.

Kona Kitchen: Ono Grinds in Seattle


Loco moco is not the first thing I’d normally order when breakfasting in Hawaii. Steamed white rice topped with a fried egg and brown gravy sound tasty enough, not so different in concept from an egg benedict really. It’s the ground beef patty that gives me pause, the potential always there for lean and rubbery meat like many a burger. Even the celebrated loco moco from Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) failed to impress. It’s not that I don’t like beef patties (I do); it’s just in combination with rice that doesn’t do it for me. Go figgah.

I had lunch at Kona Kitchen recently, which many consider the best Hawaiian restaurant in Seattle. On the menu was the classic loco moco. For lunch, there’s also katsu loco. Instead of ground beef, rice is topped with battered and fried chicken thighs. More than that, you have the option to substitute fried rice for white. Yowza! To me, this sounded much more appealing.

The serving size is hefty. The waiter hinted it would be a challenge to finish. Was he right. Crispy chicken katsu and an over-easy egg sat on a bed of Hawaiian-style fried rice. We’re talking an enormous quantity, an umami bomb of soy sauce-laced rice mixed with little cubes of Spam, barbecued pork and green onions. And that divine gravy! Though the rice is softer than I like, this dish alone should put Kona Kitchen on the culinary map. This couldn’t be better made on the islands.

Mochiko chicken is marinated and sweetened with sugar, batter and fried. Kona Kitchen’s is good, with hints of ginger, served with two scoops of white rice and a very good mac salad. A few nuggets were a bit dry.

Mochiko chicken

The menu also has saimin, that favorite of Hawaiian noodle soups. It also has wonton min that adds housemade wonton dumplings with the noodles, and includes a hard-cooked egg and barbecued pork. The noodles are cooked to the soft stage as Hawaiians like it.

Wonton min

On the menu are lots of Hawaiian faves, including pork lau laukalua pigHawaiian-style beef stew, Spam and Portuguese sausage as ingredients for a number of dishes, Hawaiian sweet bread. It will be tough for me to stay away from the katsu loco though. Fortunately, my daughter lives close by so sampling these other dishes is but a short drive away.

Kona Kitchen
8501 Fifth Ave NE
Seattle, WA
206-517-5662

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Eggslut, More Than a Fatuous Name


It’s pretty much a sure thing that where there is a line out a restaurant’s door, therein lies good food. The first two times I walked past Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market (GCM), the queue was astonishingly long. No other food establishment in the Market came close to being as popular. I’m not particularly keen to wait in long lines for food, so I just made a mental note, check this place out.

As a restaurant name, Eggslut is a touch bawdy, provoking curious stares and skeptical ears. It isn’t so unusual anymore when expletives litter social media and words like ass, bitch and bastard now appear in business names. Eggslut didn’t have its beginning in the Market but as a food truck, a genre crossover no longer rare. After the ‘crash’ of 2008, vacancies at GCM went up. When owner Alvin Cailan saw the empty space facing Broadway, he jumped at the chance to set up a brick-and-mortar, recognizing the similarity of the new venture to his food truck operation: serving eager customers while facing the street in a semi-enclosed space. It opened in 2013 and was an immediate hit.

I went back to GCM with my wife and sister-in-law on a weekday morning. We got there at opening (8am) when the Eggslut crowds don’t yet materialize like they do on weekends when 1,000 eggs typically get served.

The Slut is the eponymous menu item. Picture a mason jar filled with puréed potatoes and topped with an egg, which gets coddled when the jar is immersed in hot water. What’s recommended is that you stir the whole thing together, then scoop out with the accompanying buttered baguette toasts. Quite a unique preparation, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The potatoes are nicely seasoned and buttered. The egg is barely cooked, white and yolk still jiggly, sprinkled with chives and sea salt. If you’re averse to barely cooked eggs, you likely will pass on this. For the rest of us, the Slut is a revelation, an inspired, luscious combination of simple ingredients.

The Slut partially stirred

Though the Slut is the signature dish, what might have become more popular since the transformation from food truck to Grand Central Market stand is the morning breakfast sandwich known as the Fairfax, presumably named after the street in L.A. where the truck used to ply its trade. It’s not the usual sausage, cheese and egg in an English muffin but a glorious mess of soft-scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions and chives billeted in a brioche bun. The sandwich gets zing from sriracha mayo. Optional (and extra cost) is bacon. Unless preference or dietary laws prevent it, add the bacon. The mess factor is high. After the first bite, breakfast starts to fall apart: bits of egg drop, a slurry of mayo and cooked onion liquid pools in the hand and dribbles down the arm, bacon pulls out. I saw suits with ties flipped over their shoulder. The sandwich wrap does its valiant best to stem the tide. Eyes closed, I shifted into an alternate reality that I was sad to leave when breakfast was over. Sublime.

The Fairfax

If you insist on more familiar grub, also on the menu are bacon or turkey sausage sandwiches with medium-fried egg and cheddar. There’s also a cheeseburger.

Angelinos no longer have a monopoly on such goodness. If you live in Las Vegas or NYC, there’s an Eggslut near you, too.

Eggslut
317 S. Broadway, Stall D-1
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213.625.0292

Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013