Something New - Salvadoran Food

If you are like me you know as much about the nation of El Salvador as you do about cricket; mainly, that it exists and you don't have anything bad to say about it. Of course, you don't have anything good to say either - it just is.

A nation roughly the size of New Jersey, El Salvador is on the Pacific side of Central America, just south of Guatemala. If you want to know more than that, go to the experts (that's somewhat of a joke, but you know...if you see it on the internet, it must be true).

Now all of that is well and good - but I'm more concerned with the food. Knowing nothing about the nation I had no idea, so when Wifey found this place called Sabor Salvadoreno in Beaverton and suggested we try it, both of us really had no idea what to expect. I mean, seriously - what is it?

As it turns out Salvadoran food isn't too far off from Mexican - and it's pretty dang good. We decided to hit this place up last weekend for lunch. It's not much to look at - probably not the place you bring a date you are trying to impress. However, everyone there was very friendly, there was a soccer game on TV in Spanish, and it seemed a little homey.

As usual we ordered a few different things to share, to get a feel for the flavors.

The first item was an order of pupusas revueltas. No, I didn't know what a pupusa was either - had to look it up. The one we ordered was stuffed with pork (chicharron), beans, and cheese. It was pretty dang tasty - which is good, since this is one of their specialities. They are pretty inexpensive too, I think it was just a couple dollars. The dough was light enough and the filling had nice flavor.

We also ordered a chicken tamale. Now, I've had tamales before and never really liked them. Not sure why, they just have always seemed to lack any real flavor. Not true with this one. It is cooked in a banana leaf - not sure if that makes a difference - and the tamale itself was extremely moist, flavored with the chicken meat and some peppers. I surprised myself by really liking this.

The third item was the desayunos salvadorenos - a typical Salvadoran breakfast. This was comprised of some scrambled eggs, refried beans, a sour cream-like crema, and fried bananas. The eggs were eggs, but with the salsa they provided added to them they were very good. The beans were good as well, not the stuff you get at bad Mexican restaurants to be sure. The bananas were also good - very sweet - but I admit that eating an entire banana (quartered) after being fried, that was a bit much. Banana overload because the frying seems to really bring out the sweet. It also came with a side of toast that was actually a miniature loaf of pretty flavorless bread. Overall, a good dish - minus the bread.

We followed all of this up with an order of empanadas. These ones were filled with something kind of creamy but not liquidy (the menu called it "milk product" - whatever that means) - if that makes any sense, and - and were made with plantain, then rolled in sugar after being deep fried. After eating them we were pretty sure they made FROM plantain, not WITH plantain. I'd never eaten a plantain before, but these were pretty good, a distinctively different taste from a banana. We both liked them, so if nothing else we might have something else to add to the shopping list.

For me it was banana/plantain overload, almost to the point of nausea. Of course, that's not their fault - we ordered the stuff. Overall everything was very good and the service was great - plus our entire bill, with tip, came to only $18 - so I think this is a place we'll go back to, perhaps trying one of the meat dishes to see what else Salvadoran food is about. I'd recommend it.


Latest Reads and Views

One of the nice things about summer - and the dogs days of summer at my moonlighting job - is you can take some time to relax and catch up on things, like books and movies. Since I love books and movies, I've been doing a lot of that over the past few weeks. Here's some quick hits and misses.


Slumdog Millionaire - Bet you didn't know this was a book, did you? It was originally published under the name Q&A and was written by Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat. The book was the basis for the movie, but in general terms only. The main characters have different names (Ram as opposed to Jamal for the main character), but the story where the poor kid knows the answers to all the quiz show questions based on the experiences of his life is the same. Of course, the specific stories are all different as well. In a way, that makes the book better than I expected after watching the movie because it was all new, and it tells the story in a different way. I can't say the book or the movie is better than the other, but the book is definitely worth a read.

Relentless - This is the latest offering by Dean Koontz and I have to say I'm disappointed. It's not that the story is bad or boring, but I think something has been lost in how Koontz tells a story from his earlier days of such amazing thrillers as Intensity and House of Thunder to what he does today. Since he started the Odd Thomas series his characters have changed a bit, like Koontz is more concerned with creating the idea of his characters rather than continuing to do what made him a star. The stories aren't bad, and when he gets to the action its just as riveting as in the previous best sellers, there is just less of it. In fact, in this book nothing action like really happens for 50 pages. That's fine and doesn't make it bad, it's just not my expectation when I pick up a Koontz book, you know? Of course, I'll keep reading though. Tom Clancy went through something similar until his most recent novel, when suddenly the old Clancy was back. That's what I'm hoping is in the future for Koontz - bring back the thriller!

My next read is Shooting Stars, about LeBron James by Terry Pluto. Two chapters into it and I'm pretty enthralled. After that I have a stack of books I'm on the short list for at the library...good thing I have a vacation coming up!


The Watchmen - This movie was epic, definitely, but I'm not entirely sure it was good. I felt like there were multiple pieces of the story I wasn't getting, so thankfully I'll be getting the graphic novel from the library soon. Of course, that doesn't say good things about the movie. I was a tad disappointed they couldn't pull this off as well as they did V For Vendetta (loved the graphic novel and the movie).

Oceans Series - In a span of a few days we watched Oceans 11 off the Roku box via Netflix (if you have Netflix and don't have a Roku box you are missing out), watched Oceans 12 on Blu-Ray from the library, and then had Oceans 13 delivered on Blu-Ray from Netflix. Oceans 12 was the least good, but all of them were entertaining. I'm a fan of the repartee between the characters of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Matt Damon (and those other guys), but can I say any of them were actually good? Oceans 11 I would probably call good - the other two were just pretty entertaining.

The Soloist - I found this one pretty entertaining, and I enjoy the true stories. Jamie Foxx - as usual - was an excellent actor and I thoroughly enjoy Robert Downey, Jr. even if he does play the same character in every movie he is in. Thumbs up.

Knowing - I won't say this was especially good, but it was entertaining. I like Nicolas Cage's movie more than a lot of people, but it's not for the acting that's for sure.

I Love You Man - I admit it, I'm a big fan of Paul Rudd. I was hoping this movie would be really good and funny, but in the end it was just pretty amusing - it didn't really break the mold on anything. Still, a fun watch.

Nim's Island - $25 says you have never heard of this movie, and you'd be surprised to hear it stars Gerard Butler, Abigail Breslin, and Jodie Foster. It's a kid's movie about a girl stranded on a tropical island after dad gets stuck in a storm at sea. It's actually pretty entertaining, for something rated G and not a cartoon. Foster, in my mind, was excellent as an agoraphobe, though how she finally got talked out of the house isn't entirely believable. Decent movie to watch with kids, but it's not really date night material.

P.S. I Love You - This movie made be angry. Not because it's bad or anything, but it was billed as a romantic comedy and is really just a depressing sobfest. Butler shows up again and does a solid job, and Lisa Kudrow reprises her Friends role without the blondeness. I'm not a Hillary Swank fan, but she was entertaining, though my favorite actor was Harry Connick, Jr. in his role as the guy with no filter. Big fan of his. The movie is good - just don't go into expecting laughs, because it's assuredly not funny.

License to Wed - I think every member of The Office made an appearance in this move except Steve Carill. John Krasinksi didn't have to step outside of his Jim character at all, so he did great. Not a big fan of Robin Williams, and the extras on the DVD all involve him doing not funny things people think are funny. What people, I don't know. The movie was entertaining, but really all I could think about through the whole thing was I am so glad Wifey wasn't some religion where I had to go through something like that. After the movie she told me the same thing about me. Three cheers for small weddings on the beach in Maui!

Fool's Gold is probably up next, and Netflix has Adventureland on the way...more reviews in a week or two!

Syun: Izakaya Showdown #3

There are three izakayas in Portland commonly considered the best and most authentic: Biwa, Yuzu, and Syun. We have now been to all of them, but we wanted to hit up Syun again closely on our visits to Biwa and Yuzu to get a true comparison.

Syun has no website, so you'll have to get your info from Yelp. It's a ways from the masses in Hillsboro, about a 15-20 minute drive from downtown Portland, so that right there puts it a step behind. It seems like if a place isn't in the city or in a new trendy area, the foodies look down on it just a tad. Syun, though, seems to have managed to get around that by just being pretty damn good.

There is a legend - not sure how true it is - that Syun was financed by some Intel bigwigs from Japan who wanted good Japanese food near where they worked and lived. Supposedly they put up the money to bring over an experienced izakaya chef from Japan and Syun was born. The restaurant itself is housed in the basement of the old public library in the "downtown" area of Hillsboro, near the city hall and everything else important.

When you walk down the steps from the sidewalk level into the izakaya, it's like being transported to Japan just a little bit. It's pretty well-lit to be traditional, but you get the feeling this place isn't entirely germane to someplace like Hillsboro, Oregon - and it's not, in a good way.

Another thing you notice right away is the sushi counter. Traditionally izakayas don't do sushi, but this might also be part of the Intel legend that the bigwigs wanted good sushi as well. And really, you can't blame them - it's not exactly plentiful in the area.

I'm of two minds about this. I typically prefer a place to do less but do it well, but on the other hand I think having a sushi counter in an izakaya gives them more flexibility on their clientelle to be sure. If they are going to do it, they better do it well, right?

The menu is huge - about 25 times bigger than Biwa's (you think that's a joke, but I assure its not) and probably double even that of Yuzu, so you have plenty of options. And that's before the sushi.

We decided to order things similar to what we had eaten at the other two places, give it a real comparison, so we went with the gyoza, pork belly, tori karaage (fried chicken), okonomiyaki, yakionigiri (grilled rice ball), and then also ordered the sushi special of the day, a spicy crab roll called something like "Crab Dynamite." Oh, and I ordered a Black Butte Porter from the tap - after all, this IS an izakaya.

One thing that I love about Syun - and Yuzu did this as well - was bringing out some steamed edamame to nibble on while we waited for our food. Syun does something a little bit different than Yuzu to give the steamed veggies a little bit more flavor, making them a delight.

The sushi came out first. It was tightly rolled with a generous filling of crab and cucumber, with sesame seeds on the outside of the roll and drizzled with a hot, creamy sauce. Normally I'm not big on the hot - especially when it comes from wasabi - but mixed with the sweetness of the fresh crab it worked. In fact, it worked incredibly well.

Remember my comment about having to do it well? Syun does sushi well. If that makes some people discount them as not a true izakaya, that's their own loss and incredibly short-sighted. If that makes them not try the sushi if they do come, again, their own loss. It wasn't the best sushi I've ever had, but it was pretty dang good, and it's another option worth ordering.

The gyoza had the best tasting filling of all three places. The pork mixture was not only a generous serving but had a nice blend of flavors. I liked the wrappers from Biwa the best because they were a little crunchy, but overall Syun may have the edge.

The yakionigiri was okay. Syun puts smoked salmon in the middle, which sounds better than it is in my opinion. It was a tad dry after the grilling and while overall it wasn't bad, it was probably my least favorite item we had.

Then there was the pork belly. It was soft and sweet, very well done. The sauce was the best of the three we tried, but the chunks of meat (generously sized) seemed to have more fat than the other two places. Now, ordering pork belly you can't be afraid of a little of the white stuff, but at the same time if it's too much it really overpowers the rest of the taste. This was borderline. Good taste, but needed more pork to go with the belly. (Perhaps this depends on which piece you get out of the order - Wifey's piece had almost no fat.)

The tori karaage was excellent. The crispiness of the frying was very light and not oily, while the meat underneath was perfectly done. I still would have liked a tad more flavor, but I'm just about positive it's not the dish, it's me. Maybe it's just not what I'm looking for.

Finally, the okonomiyaki. Syun makes it with shrimp in the Osaka style where everything is mixed together. After cooking it's topped with fish flakes. In a certain respect it's a tad creepy because they bring this dish out and all of the flakes are waving and crinkling due to the heat of the okonomiyaki underneat them, almost giving you the sense it's still alive. Freakiness aside, the dish was excellent. Is it as good as Japan, or even as good as my own kitchen? No, it's not - but so few places actually make it and it's kind of a lot of work to do it at home, so why not? It's a staple for us, something we get every time.

So what's the determination? Who wins for best izakaya in Portland?

Syun, hands down, has the best ambience. Biwa's stylings are a little too modern and Western, and while that appeals to my sense of style it just doesn't fit for some reason. Yuzu is a little plain. Ambience, though, is a bit overrated in my book - the food is the star.

Syun gets extra points for good sushi and variety as well, but - to us - the best food overall was at Biwa. Syun is second place and Yuzu is third. Which, of course, doesn't necessarily mean a ton, since they all have things they do well, all are good destinations for Japanese food, and all of them we'll be going back to.

Still, this doesn't mean the quest is over. There are still some smaller, less popular places to explore - places like Tanuki - who don't necessarily fit the traditional definition of an izakaya. But then again, why does it matter? If the food is good, for me, that's the main thing. Enjoy.


Koi Fusion - Unique and Yummy

I'm not a connoisseur of Korean food at all - let's just get that out of the way up front. My experiences are limited to an occasional piece of Korean BBQ from the past here and there. I did have a Korean roommate in my house senior year in college and he cooked for us a couple of times (the short ribs on the grill around graduation were fantastic - good times), but a few of the things were too hot for me, like his homemade kim chee. I'm not talking about too spicy, just literally too hot - like scald your throat and peel your stomach lining hot.

So when I started to read about this new food cart in downtown Portland called Koi Fusion, which meshed Korean and Mexican flavors, I really had no idea what to expect. However, the reviews were favorable and I was intrigued, so it went on the list.

Then on their Twitter feed Koi Fusion mentioned they were trying out a new item for the week, the K-Burger. It was a burger infused with bulgogi flavors and topped with kim chee.

Intrigued, I walked up to the cart on 6th and College for lunch the other day. I decided to get the burger and some tacos, so I ordered the spicy pork, the spicy chicken, and the bulgogi beef tacos.

When I was handed the burger they asked me to let them know how it was and on their Twitter feed I saw they wanted real honest feedback, like they were deciding whether or not it should be added to the menu, so I gave it a good taste test.

Yummy. The meat was perfectly cooked and had a nice sweet bulgogi flavor. The kim chee added a nice balance of kick to the sweet without being too hot, which was something I was a little cautious about. Would I get it again for $6? Definitely. On top of the fact it was good, it was also pretty good-sized - definitely a solid meal all by itself. And that's what I told Koi Fusion when I dropped them an email.

The tacos were excellent too. They came on fresh corn tortillas (seriously, does anyone know where I can buy these?) with generous helpings of meat topped with fresh vegetables, including onion and a slice of fresh cucumber. They were so full it was hard to wrap them up and eat, but that's never a bad thing. I topped each taco with a little bit of the green chile sauce they had out plus freshly squeezed lime - again, excellent. The tacos were $2 each and the three of them was the perfect amount.

They also sell a couple other kinds of tacos and burritos - and yes, I'll be going back at some point to try everything.

Well, not all at once. Probably. Maybe. Depends on how hungry I am...

Two thumbs up to Koi Fusion, a fresh mix of flavors that will open your palette!


Really, We Went Out For Pie and a Sandwich

A little bit ago Wifey and I decided it probably wasn't the best thing in the world for us to hit about 17 different food places every time we went out, so last Saturday we made a plan. We decided we wanted to go to Bunk Sandwiches for a, well, sandwich, then we'd hit the Bipartisan Cafe for some pie and coffee.

That was going to be it. Really. Needless to say, that's not what happened. Not even remotely.

We ended up making Bob's Red Mill our first stop, hoping to find baking powder in something less than 16 ounces. Neither of us had been there before but we buy their stuff all the times at New Seasons or Whole Foods, so we figured we'd check it out, see what else they had.

Well, they had a ton of stuff, but not what we were looking for. And the place was crazy busy! Apparently they serve food, which didn't look that great but was enough to practically fill up the parking lot. The only thing we bought was some hazelnut meal - for a recipe - and I decided to try a loaf of their cinnamon raisin oat bread made with all their special flours and the like. The bread was okay - not great, but not bad. A decent loaf at $1.99, but nothing I'm going to go out of my way for.

By this time it was after noon, we were hungry, and we were a long ways from Bunk, so we decided to hit up the Garden State food cart in Sellwood, which was on the way. We decided we would split a meatball sub at Garden State - which specializes in Sicilian food - and then split another sandwich at Bunk. We ordered the meatball hero - their signature item - and two round balls called arancine. The arancine are fried balls of saffron risotto, filled with some seasonal vegetables and mozzarella.

Both items were very good. The sauce on the sub didn't overpower the meatballs, and the arancine were fairly light and fluffy. At $1 each for those, three of them are a nice snack. Or one and a sub for a nice meal. Either way, good stuff - we'll be going back here.

The area where Garden State sits shares some tables with a couple other carts, so we sat and ate there. As we were looking around the area Wifey noticed a place called Jade Teahouse and Patisserie across the street. This is a Vietnamese place and she wanted to try Vietnamese coffee, so that was our next stop.

We ended up ordering the coffee and a slice of something called Vietnamese Wedding Cake. The coffee was okay - what makes it Vietnamese is mixing the coffee with sweetened condensed milk. It's sweet, but at the same time bitter. We drank it, but neither one of us were all that thrilled. Wifey said she'd be willing to try it again someplace else - mark that down.

The wedding cake we took home and ate later, but it was excellent. The cake itself has a green color, from a pandan plant (not real sure how it's used), but it was very moist. The frosting was nice, but what really made the cake was a layer of puff pastry in the middle of the two layers of cake, with a type of pudding. Honestly, this was one of the best cakes I've ever had, and I love me some cake.

The rest of the menu looked good, but we had just eaten. We'll be going back at some point to try other foods, some more cake, and probably not the coffee.

At this point we weren't exactly hungry but we were still planning on going to Bunk, so we headed into the core of the city to Bunk Sandwiches. This place has a rep and is always, always, always busy, but it was after lunch time by now so we thought we'd give it a try. We parked around the block and walked up to it - the line was about 20 people out the door. We looked at each other, agreed that another time would be best, and walked back to the car.

Note to self: Get there right at 11 when they open, no matter the day of the week.

So what next? Some driving, apparently. We drove out to North Mississippi again to check out where a new pod of 10 foodcarts are going to be near Mississippi and Skidmore. Supposedly it's going to be open in September, so we wanted to just get an idea of where it was. After that, we drove around a bit aimlessly, just to see what was around in Northeast, see if anything caught our eye.

We found ourselves driving up Fremont Street and past a coffee place called Jim and Patty's. You may or may not have heard of them, but if you lived in Portland in the past 10 years and liked coffee you will remember their old company - Coffee People. Unfortunately Starbucks bought them out, but Jim and Patty started a new company. Considering I consider the Black Tiger blend milkshake a legitimate contender to crack cocaine (in a good way), we had to stop.

It's a nice looking place - spacious, bright, and a goodie counter filled with all sorts of scrumptious looking coffee accompaniments. No shake today though, and no goodies - I don't need to gain weight every Saturday. We did get a mocha and from the bevy of flavors chose the peanut butter and fudge. Shrug...

It was okay - but the peanut butter flavor came out of a bottle and it was very, very sweet. I would go back, but I'd try something else - perhaps something where the flavor is true. Or just get a Black Tiger shake and not sleep for a week. Definitely a thumbs down on the peanut butter and fudge mocha though, which was disappointing.

We were still planning on getting to the Bipartisan Cafe at this point, so we headed south towards Stark. After a detour to Mt. Tabor park (which looked like an interesting place to come back to and hike around), we were almost to Division and Wifey decided we MUST go to this new Italian place called Taste Unique, which happened to be next door to Tart. She found this place when looking up the area around Tart after our experience there two weeks ago.

Taste Unique is run by a couple by the names of Stefania and Lawrence who came to Portland from the fair Italian city of Perugia via Rome - about an hour or so north of Rome in the Umbria region. Those of you who know me know I love Perugia - I spent a summer there in college learning Italian. It's a very, very old city with a very, very violent past, but it's full of great people and pretty good food - though food wasn't super interesting to me at the time.

Taste Unique isn't really a restaurant, though they have a couple tables, but more of a take-out place. You can get various frozen Italian meals, sauces, fresh pastas, focaccia...just about everything yummy. Stefania makes everything herself, including the pasta, the tiramisu, and the sausage, with local ingredients.

Oh, and did I mention both of them are the nicest people we've run into in awhile?

We went in planning to get a little something for dinner, perhaps a lasagna. Local messageboards had been awash in praise for Stefania's cooking and as someone with some Italian experience, we had to see for ourselves. We settled on a freshly cooked eggplant parmegian and, of course, a serving of tiramisu (and by serving, I mean a huge amount that supposedly serves three but is more than enough for 6-8).

Why eggplant? Not sure really, since we haven't really had much eggplant, but it looked really good. Later when we ate it, it tasted good - but it was still eggplant. We have to go back and try something with meat...

We talked with Lawrence a bit because he wanted to know how we heard about them, especially when we told him we live on the other side of the city. Wifey mentioned I had lived for a short time in Perugia, so Stefania came over and talked with us too, ecstatic to find someone who had been to her town. Unfortunately, that was ten years ago and I confess to not knowing half the places she talked about (or more), plus I apparently missed out by not visiting the Perugina chocolate factory - all that means I have to go back.

After we paid for the food Lawrence asked us if we had a couple minutes to try something. Um, yes, actually. Yes we do. We aboslutely have time to try something. And if we didn't, we would have made time.

He asked us if we liked sweet things, we said sure. So a couple minutes later he came out with slices of focaccia with Nutella spread in the middle. In Rome they call it pizza bianca and the bread was just about perfect with a nice salting on the outside. Getting a bit of that with the creamy, chocolatey Nutella in the middle was fantastic, just a perfect combination of sweet and salty.

Oh yeah, we'll be going back.

After that wonderful stop - and now having tiramisu (which was creamy, espresso-y goodness!) and Vietnamese wedding cake in the cooler (yes, we drive around town with a cooler - and?) - we decided we probably didn't need pie from Bipartisan as well...so maybe another time. But, we weren't too far from a Vietnamese bakery called An Xuyen. They make a variety of Asian baked goods and sell at Uwajimaya (not too far from home), but I was looking specifically for Japanese shoku pan with raisins. It's basically just bread, but thick-cut square pieces, almost an inch thick. Uwajimaya used to carry it but then it disappeared, so I wanted to see if maybe An Xuyen still had it.

So we headed that way, but drove past this Asian mall called Fubonn. Given that out schedule was pretty open, we decided to check it out - and really, the place is amazing. They had various restaurants, a bakery, a candy store, an immigration office, an investment company, and a decent sized grocery store - all of it English optional. For us both it was interesting to just walk the aisles and see all there was to see. We didn't buy anything, but might go back at some point.

Then we made our way to the An Xuyen Bakery. Unfortunately for me no raisin shoku pan, but they do make Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and they did have Vietnamese coffee. And they had a special - the pair for something like $3.50. Considering the coffee was $2.50 on its own, that's a solid deal. We ordered a BBQ pork banh mi, Vietnamese coffee, a BBQ pork steamed bun, and an apple pastry - I think I spent less than $6 total or something like that.

Remember Wifey saying she would try Vietnamese coffee again? She didn't think it would be so soon! This one was, well, sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Unless you love, love, love sweet stuff, I wouldn't recommend it. The steamed bun was okay - nothing to write home about and there are better ones all over. The apply pastry was fine (had some kind of coconut taste to it), but the apple part of it was definitely not special.

The sandwich, though, was excellent. Their fresh french bread was very good, the filling was yummy, and at an average price of $2.50 you can't really go wrong. I'll probably be back to the bakery, but it will only be for a sandwich (well, unless they have my raisin shoku pan). This place actually isn't too far from work, so perhaps I can talk a co-worker into a banh mi lunch.

After that it was home - long day of exploring. Here's the summary:

Bob's Red Mill - shrug
Garden State - Thumbs up, will return
Jade Tea House - Thumbs up, will return
Jim and Patty's - Will return, but will order something different
Taste Unique - Thumbs up, will return (very soon)
An Xuyen - Partial thumbs up, will return


Yuzu - Pretty Dang Good

As I mentioned last week in my review of Biwa (or whatever it is - I don't feel comfortable with the word "review"...maybe "experience" would be better?) Portland has a couple other izakayas around that are also supposed to be excellent. Of those, Yuzu in Beaverton is the one most commonly mentioned in the same breath, so we decided to check it out and see for ourselves.

Yuzu also comes with a little bit of intrigue around it. It sits in a small strip mall (actually the former home of Hakatamon, which moved into Uwajimaya a mile away) with simple decorations and nothing to indicate it exists except small lettering "YUZU" on the door and a sign indicating whether or not it is open or closed - their hours are posted in tiny letters and numbers. They don't have a website, so the menu is a surprise when you get there. If you call them, the message is in Japanese.

For what it's worth, they will take reservations, and they open at 6pm. Only for dinner and later (til midnight), and they are closed on Sunday.

Reviewers on Yelp said this place filled up fast and it was recommended to get there early, so we showed up a tad before 6 and waited a couple minutes for the sign to flip to Open. We were the first ones there - the next customers didn't arrive until after 6:30. Good thing we were so antsy. Who knows why it didn't seem too busy - maybe it's because it was Wednesday, maybe it was just and off day, I have no idea.

The long and narrow restaurant has a decent number of tables for the size and some spots along a bar where customers can look into the kitchen a bit. Our hostess/waitress was Japanese as were the cooks as best as I could tell (good sign, right?). The menu is about six pages long, plus another 3-4 pages of drinks, various sakes and other things. She gave us plenty of time to peruse the menu, but not too long - to me, the mark of a good waitress.

Just a point I want to make here - many who don't speak or read Japanese have noticed the wooden art pieces on the wall and that they depict the names of various dishes, and they have openly wondered if there is a special menu for those who speak Japanese. Perhaps, but from what I could tell (and I don't profess to being able to read a ton of Kanji, just some), I don't think so. Those pieces seemed representative of what was on the pages of the menu. For what it's worth.

Wifey's mom joined us for this meal, so we decided to get a few different things (or, seven as it turned out) and share them all. We also opted not to get ramen this time, even though it's supposedly fantastic.

At Biwa each item came out one at a time and we were able to concentrate on enjoying just the one dish, but at Yuzu the rate of dishes coming out of the kitchen was much faster, probably because we were the first ones ordering any food. They didn't come out all at once, but still a very steady pace. While I liked the way the food came out at Biwa, I can't say faster is a bad thing either. It's nice to be switch back and forth and let different flavors swirl around your mouth.

I can't remember the Japanese words for everything we ordered (if there was a menu online I could reference that, but...) so I'll do the best I can here. Nor can I remember exactly what came first, but it probably really doesn't matter.

1 - One dish was a konnyaku, which is made from what is called "Japanese mountain potato" - what exactly that is I don't know. Whatever it starts from it ends up as something slightly gelatinous and a little chewy, which probably doesn't sound that appetizing but wasn't bad at all. If you want to try something completely different from everyday American fare, this would qualify.

2 - Gyoza - Japanese pot stickers stuffed with ground pork - are a stable for us whever we eat Japanese food out. Yuzu's gyoza weren't as crispy as Biwa's, but they were just as tasty. Slightly smaller, but we got six instead of five.

3 - Tori karaage - a deep-fried garlic chicken dish. The chicken was very most and soft, fried perfectly, with a light flavoring of garlic - not strong at all. The outside of the chicken tidbits were almost dry, not oily at all, which is good for me since I'm not a huge fan of oily deep frying.

4 - A salmon dish, lightly salted with a side of shredded daikon. Personally I'm not a big fan of daikon at all, but rest assured it didn't go to waste. The salmon was good, but to me it was nothing special. Nicely cooked, but I think it was the fish itself that held the dish back, not how it was cooked or prepared.

5 - Gyu negima - Thin strips of ribe-eye steak wrapped around green onion and grilled. This was the best dish of the night, with a teriyaki sauce that matched the beef perfectly. The grilling was perfect, the onion actually was a nice complementary flavor (and I'm not a green onion fan). I would go back to Yuzu just to eat this.

6 - Pork belly! Oh yes, I'm a convert to this fatty piece of lusciousness. I don't know if it was as good as Biwa's, but it was still excellent (I'm fully cognizant that - as I talked about in my Whiffies discussion - it's quite possible no piece or pork belly will ever match up to Biwa's from last week). The fatty layers practically melted in your mouth and the meaty layers may actually have been more plentiful. Either way, fantastic.

7 - Yakionigiri - grilled rice balls. We picked two orders of these - two yakionigiri in each order - so everyone was able to eat at least one. Comparatively with the ones from Biwa and Chef Naoko's, these were the smallest, but here an order was for two while the other two restaurants you only received one per order. The grilling was good, but it didn't seem quite as flavorful as the other two.

Interestingly enough, after the meal is when we were served our green tea (which was very good genmai cha - brewed with brown rice) instead of before as I've been used to. Not a good thing or a bad thing, just different - and the tea was excellent.

So here's the deal - would I go back? Absolutely. I want to go back just to try out the ramen - which is supposed to be the best around - and that beef dish was literally one of the best I have ever had. Next time I might take a stab at trying a sake too. Besides, the menu is quite extensive - easily three times the size of Biwa's - meaning there were things I didn't get a chance to try that I need to check out.

Would I recommend it? Most definitely. Some of the dishes we had, like the konnyaku, are pretty unique, dishes you don't find every day. Plus, nothing we had was bad, most of it was good, and some of it was excellent.

But where does it rank on Portland's izakaya scene? Forced to choose, I'd take Biwa over Yuzu, even though it's 15 miles further from home. Perhaps next week we'll check out Syun in Hillsboro, so we can truly decide what's best!


If I Had $1(86) Million....

There's a great song by The Barenaked Ladies called "If I Had A Million Dollars" with some fun lyrics that go like this:

If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a fur coat
(But not a real fur coat that's cruel)
And if I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you an exotic pet
(Yep, like a llama or an emu)

And this:

If I had a million dollars
We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner
But we would eat Kraft Dinner
Of course we would, we’d just eat more
And buy really expensive ketchups with it
That’s right, all the fanciest ke... dijon ketchups!
Mmmmmm, Mmmm-Hmmm

If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a green dress
(But not a real green dress, that's cruel)

That always kills me...a green dress being cruel. But why is this relevant? Well, Oregon is part of the Powerball lottery states and tonight's jackpot is at $186 million. And I just dropped $10 for tickets.

Funny thing with us - we have a cutoff as to when it seems to be okay to buy a lottery ticket. Most people do - it has to be a certain amount for me to make the walk to 7-11 from work to pick it up. Our cutoff is $100 million, which when you really look at it is completely arbitrary. I mean, it's not like I'd turn my nose up at $50 million...or $1 million...or really $100 - $100 million for some reason just makes it okay in our minds to spend money on something with astronomical odds of us getting anything back on.

I mean, the odds are the same no matter what the jackpot is - what goes up is the probability of having to share it which, really, I'd probably get over.

What would I do if I won? I mean, it's not going to happen anyway, but no matter what every time I have a ticket in my wallet I always spend a little time playing the what-if game; it's a nice break from the regular humdrum of work, which blows. Especially now when the world is whacking bonuses and forcing employees with no say to take lower wages and produce the same amount of work.

First thing I would do is move. I love Portland, I love the Northwest, but if I could get a nice beachfront house in Maui I'd do it in a second. Sorry Portland...I'd come visit to indulge my hedonistic food fantasies, but you just can't compete with palm trees, sunny skies, soft waves, and pretty fish and turtles under the water.

I wouldn't even have to win that much...heck, I'd try and make it happen on $2 million (half for the house, and have to invest and live off long-term). That's the first thing I'd do though with a jackpot.

I'd buy a nicer house in the Portland area, one I could come to whenever I wanted. A couple cars in each garage. Travel the world, seeing the sights and eating the specialties (within reason, I still have no desire to eat tripe and various other types of offal).

Wait, back up - I'd quit my job first. Sorry guys, I'm done. No, you don't get any notice - what are you going to do about it? Give a bad reference to my next work? HA!

I'd take care of the mortgages of my immediate family. I'm not going to support everyone if I could, but I'd make life a heck of a lot easier without everyone's biggest bill. I'd make sure both of our parents didn't have to worry about anything ever again.

I'd pay for college for the kids in my immediate family (which, at the moment, looks pretty dang cheap).

I'd travel the U.S. by car, seeing everything I could, hiking all over.

I'd write a book, just because I could, based on that experience. I have another book idea - which at this point may be an outdated idea and could be a better website - based on experiences at every single sports arena.

I'd follow my favorite college football team for a full season. Then do it again the next year with my favorite NFL team. And write about it.

And all this writing? It would never matter if anyone would read it or not - it would just be fun (which, now that I think about it, describes this blog anyway).

I would also probably do some good for the world. Wifey has wanted to start a Bengal cat rescue, since the closest one around is in California. Of course, without a chunk of change to do it right, it's not a good idea.

I would turn away just about everyone who was looking for seed money for an investment - this is how a lot of lottery winners (and professional athletes) end up broke, but putting their money in schemes of their friends. Well, maybe I wouldn't turn them all away - but I'd hire a business advisor and you better come with a proper presentation, otherwise no chance.

There are probably plenty of other things on the list too... But its 99.99% likely to not happen. Still, someone, sometime has to win, and I have 10 sets of numbers. So it could happen. If you don't hear from me for awhile, you will know why.

What would you do with a lottery jackpot?


My Drug: Caffeine

I will admit it fairly quickly - I'm a fiend when it comes to coffee. I need it to get me going every day, from my two cups before work to pop open these eyelids to the occasional mid-day mocha and the sometimes pre-workout cup after work.

The funny thing about it all is that I used to hate coffee. I didn't even like the smell of it, let alone drinking the bitter, dark liquid. Growing up neither of my parents drank coffee and really no one I was around did either, apart from one grandma. Looking back on it I was probably only exposed to instant types or other things I still won't touch.

I didn't even drink coffee in college, preferring to get my much-needed caffeine fixes from Pepsi (something I'm still trying to rid myself of the long-term impact of - damn those grams of unused sugary carbohydrates turning into fat!). None of my roommates ever drank coffee either, at least not regularly. We didn't have a coffeemaker of any kind, let alone a grinder or some airtight container to store beans.

On the occasion when I was with people who stopped at Starbucks the smell of the place actually nauseated me. Heck, I'd prefer to wait outside in the cold and have someone else get me a hot chocolate.

So what changed? There has to be something that transforms a person from one who despises even the smell to someone who would drink six cups a day if that was remotely a good idea, right?

Well, Wifey drank some when I met her. We'd take short walks from work to Starbucks for a caramel macchiato. Eventually the smell didn't nauseate me and I came to kind of like it, though I still didn't drink it. That's a warning for all you people who don't like the smell - as soon as that starts to change even the slightest bit, it's over. You will come from the dark side to the sunshine of the enlightened, it's only a matter of time at that point. No going back.

For me, while those trips seemed to have started me down the path, it wasn't the true trigger. That came in Hawaii, which has since become my gold standard for all things coffee.

On our honeymoon Wifey and I went on a 10-day cruise around the Hawaiian islands (and Fanning Island in the nation of Kiribati). One of the stops on the cruise was in Kona on the big island of Hawaii. I had heard of Kona coffee and had been to Kona before, but that had never really interested me. However, it did interest Wifey.

Towards the end of the day she decided she wanted to check out the area around the port to see if she could find some coffee to bring home. We had no education on the area, no experience with Kona coffees, so at random we chose this tiny little shop called Country Samurai Coffee Company to duck into. To my surprise the smell of the place was heavenly - not just the tolerable I had gotten used to at a Starbucks.

We were the only ones in the shop and the storekeeper took the time to explain to us about the different kinds of beans they sold, about the specifics of what makes a coffee "Kona" (not all beans from Kona are Kona coffee beans), and to watch out for beans not advertised as 100% Kona. Those are the worst, because you try them expecting Kona goodness and get something cut with beans from another part of the world - sort of like a cocaine dealer cutting product with sugar or baking soda. It's just not the same, you know?

Wifey liked the sample and to her utter shock I took the storekeeper up on his offer to try it myself. And I actually liked it. We bought some beans to bring home, and coffee nation had another convert.

Of course, when we got home from our trip we realized we didn't have a coffee grinder, so we had to go buy one of those. And then we ended up buying a combination coffee/espresso maker from Krups, because that's the next evolutionary step, making your own espresso as well.

For awhile I stuck only to Kona coffee, firm in my belief that if people told me something else isn't as good then why bother, right?

The problem with that is cost, since coffee at $35-40 a pound (when shipped from the islands) isn't the most cost effective way to drink when you start needing it daily. Or on an intravenous drip.

So we started dabbling. We got bit by the Kona blend lying in advertisings a couple of times (seriously, talk about the need for truth in packaging - Hulk angry!!) before we finally learned that lesson. Then, as we did more and more research on the topic we figured out Kona actually has some sister flavors from other parts of the world in similar climates. From Peet's coffee we learned we also liked their single origin beans from Guatemala, and if you look at a flattened world map you will see why.

We've even tried a couple other officially 100% Kona coffees at similar prices from other farms off the internet, but for us, only one other Kona is comparable to Country Samurai - and that's the Reserve offering from Peet's. The flavors are very similar. Wifey says she prefers the Peet's one, I think I prefer the Country Samurai one, but at the end of the day both are excellent and neither one get dumped out of my cup anywhere but down my gullet.

To me a good Kona should be smooth, easy, with hints of chocolate. Some of the others we have tried and didn't like weren't smooth, even when run through a French press (which supposedly makes a smoother cup - apparently not always). I used to think dryer beans were the key, but while the Country Samurai beans are dry the Peet's ones are very oily, so who knows.

Recently I've found a couple other coffees, fairly local, that seem like pretty good, more cost effective substitutes for a Kona addiction.

We had heard good things about some Dancing Goats, so when we saw it at Whole Foods we decided to give it a try. Very good stuff. It's smooth and with a tad of sweet - not chocolatey, but sweet. The company that makes this, Batdorf & Bronson, has the interesting setup of having roasting facilities in Atlanta, Georgia and up in Washington, which struck me as odd. Still, it's good stuff, and a third the price of good Kona. Would I choose it over Kona? Probably not, but it's still pretty dang good.

Here in Portland we also have Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Portland coffee lovers, the die-hards are fiercely anti-Starbucks and absolutely loyal to Stumptown. Personally I don't have anything against Starbucks, except for the fact the smaller coffeeshops tend to do a better product. However, that's not going to stop me from getting a Starbucks mocha at the airport in Vegas or anywhere else in the world (that was a business coup, getting the lockdown on the airport market).

I had heard a lot about Stumptown, so one day when we were downtown we headed over to a location and got a mocha. It was okay, nothing special. Then on our walking tour of Portland we stopped at a Stumptown and tried a couple single origin coffees, the places I don't recall and the tastes were nothing to write home about. At this point it seemed to me like people were just being too anti-Starbucks so they were embracing the biggest local thing - either that or I simply didn't have a good enough palate to know what was or wasn't fantastic.

In doing research into what local coffeeshops we should check out it seemed the common theme in all of them was they served Stumptown. Given my experience with the company I was understandably wary, but after going to places like Coffeehouse Northwest, Barista, Albina Press, and others - and having good coffee at all of them - I bought into this notion I had read online somewhere that if you want good Stumptown you have to go somewhere other than Stumptown. So far, I have found that to be true. I don't exactly see that as a ringing endorsement of Stumptown's coffeeshops, but it does say a lot for their people who find and roast the beans. Good things of course, very good things.

It seemed like a good time to see what I could do with the beans myself, so I picked up a bag of the Hairbender blend - this is the same blend I loved when we had brunch at Screen Door - to see what I could do at home. After putting those beans through the French press I was absolutely floored at how good they were. I still rank them a spot below the good Konas, but Stumptown knows what they are doing and I would recommend these to anyone - just take them home and use them yourself.

We all have different tastes, so it's not likely Country Samurai or Peet's Kona will be the best for everyone's palate. In fact, maybe I'm the weird one, since brands people rave about I don't think that highly of. I'm open to that...and if it's true, well then more for us.

Now, if you'll excuse me it's been an hour - I need to go make some more coffee.


Swing and a Whiffie

You know the whole theory of how you can't go home again? That's a metaphor for life, and can be applied so many different ways.

It can be simplistic, as in your old neighborhood won't be the same. This happened to come up in Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour - he and his brother would spend summers in France with their grandparents. As part of his first TV show he got his brother to sign on for a trip back to their old stomping grounds to relive all the smells and tastes and experiences of their youth. It wasn't horrible, but it sure wasn't the same.

It can also apply to the state of mind. It's almost impossible to truly reproduce any experience because no matter what it won't be the same. After all, how can it be, since you already know what it's like? You can't recreate the wonder of the first time of any kind of circumstances, because it will ultimately never measure up to the memory you have in your head.

Okay, that was 100% not intended, but those of you whose minds went straight to sex with the above paragraph are excused for your wanderings...sheez, some people. I won't name names but I know you are. John. Just kidding. Kind of.

And this why I don't know if I will ever in my life have pork belly as good as what I ate last night at Biwa. Does that mean I won't try? Hell no - I'll keep trying, and I'll love every minute of it...

For me, I keep finding all these things I loved as a child - foods in this case - aren't as good anymore, or simply are disgusting.

One of my favorite treats as a kid was the apple pies that were made by Franz or by Hostess. We'd get them at the Franz outlet at 4/$1 or something and I loved the things.

My senior year in college the house we rented was near another Franz outlet and I kept the whole house stocked in the things. At that time they were still good, but I swear they had started to skimp on the filling - they seemed more hollow than I remember.

Still, when I heard about this food cart in SE Portland called Whiffies specialized in this deep fried fruit pies, I had to check it out. Since we were in the area after dinner at Biwa, Wifey and I figured this might be a good dessert.

We were hoping for apple, but the only fruit ones they had were raspberry and lemon last night (along with some savory ones and a peanut butter something). Lemon it was.

As we were waiting for our pie to get finished, the two guys in front of us got their's. Now, honestly, these guys looked stoned out of their minds, but they seemed genuinely excited when they got their pies. At the time it was encouraging, but in retrospect they were probably just guys who were stoned out of their minds would have been just as excited to receive the gift of a parking ticket.

Our pie came up and we got it all nice and hot - apparently they make the entire thing to order, which is nice (and only $3 for the fruity ones). We decided to eat in the car on the way home, so that meant Wifey got first crack at it after it cooled.

Her first reaction - and mine as well after I tried it - was a shrug. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't all that great either.

Of course, following up on our amazing dinner at Biwa, that's a tough act to follow. I'm absolutely sure it simply wasn't up to Biwa's standards, so it was a letdown just because of that. That's not fair to Whiffie's probably, but at the same time that's my perception of it given the circumstances I was eating it - everyone will have different circumstances that will force a review to never be 100% free of any thing like that. Perhaps a different preceding meal would illicit a different reaction. Maybe.

I'd be willing to try Whiffie's again, but I'm not going to go out of my way to do so. Where it sits on 12th and Hawthorne there are about six other food carts, some of them we want to go back and try, so perhaps then we'll give Whiffie's another chance. Until then, though, I can't say I recommend it.

It's funny, some of the reviews on Yelp mention how it's a great place to get food after a night of drinking. Those people give it top reviews. Another review, which gave it less stars, mentioned something along the lines of "maybe I wasn't drunk enough." Or stoned, like the guys in front of us.

Either way, if one really has to be more drunk or stoned to claim they love a food place, that's not really grounds for optimism in my eyes. I should have known better - and Whiffies never had a chance of matching the enjoyment I remember from eating similar things as a kid.

Sorry guys.

Listen to the cliche - you really can't go home again.

Biwa - Amazing

I like to think I have a pretty good idea of what's good and what's not when it comes to Japanese food. I majored in the language in college, Wifey is Japanese, her mom is a great cook, we've learned to create some using family recipes, we check out all the Japanese food places in the area which has a decent Japanese population, and two years ago we spent a couple weeks in Japan with family.

I've eaten the entire scale, from the decidedly American, overly-sweet teriyaki to the essence of street food in Hiroshima one of the greatest meals I've ever had at Kani Doraku in Osaka. I've made my own Japanese food, sampled some sushis, eaten sashimi, and enjoyed some very, very, very good homemade food, both here and in Japan. In Portland I've eaten all over, from Bush Garden to Toshi's to Hakatamon and more places I probably never knew the name of in the first place.

That is to say, I have some credentials when it comes to Japanese food. I'm not going to claim I'm an expert, I'm not going to claim I am the be-all and end-all authority on what's good or bad, what's true to the culture and what's not - but I do have some experience here.

So when I tell you Biwa Izakaya in Southeast Portland (in the same building that houses Simpatica) is one of the best Japanese meals I've had in my city, it should carry just the slightest bit more weight than your typical food review off the street.

To fully understand Biwa's food there has to be a definition of what an izakaya is and what makes it different than a restaurant. An izakaya is bascially a bar with bar food - small plates. In Japan this is the kind of place an officeworker stops after work with his coworkers before heading home. That's in contrast to what most of us think of as a Japanese restaurant, which focuses on entrees and sushi.

There is no sushi at Biwa and not really any entrees (that's always up to interpretation). It's a clean, slightly industrial looking place with high wooden seats and an open grill behind a bar you can sit at if you like, though there is also a decent amount of indoor and outdoor seating.

Wifey and I got there at 7:30 pm on a Wednesday. We seemed to catch the tail end of a dinner type rush, but were given a seat. Well, actually, we stood at the top of the stairs looking silly until the waitress pointed out we could pretty much pick our own seat. I think we could pick our own seat anwyay; perhaps we were just supposed to go down the stairs and look silly while waiting for someone to seat us - that much wasn't clear. After we were seated the restaurant slowly started to clear out and roughly by 8 or 8:15 it was mostly empty. By the time we left closer to 9, it was packed again - for the drinking crowd. So, apparently that time was good for Wednesday evening...not sure if that was an anomaly or a recommendation, but that's probably the time we'll target the next time we go.

After perusing the menu (after a free treat of pickled daikon and seaweed - which eating with chopsticks made difficult but was yummy) we made our plan of attack - five items, and we'd share them all. I also ordered a drink called a Ginza, with Knob Creek whiskey and plum wine (strong, but smooth - spendy at $10 though).

(Really, one of these times I'll bring a camera - seriously.) One of the things we both enjoyed was that even though we ordered all five things at once the items were brought out one at a time, as they were finished. We had plenty of time to enjoy each dish, but it was also fast enough that we never wonting.

The first item was a yakionigiri - grilled rice ball. It was your typical rice ball, only grilled and splashed with a very nice soy sauce. Sound odd? It did to me the first time I had one too (at Chef Naoko's), but at the same time intriguing. Burned rice doesn't necessarily grab me...but this was excellent. I never would have thought this was a good idea, but you can bet I'm going to make some rice balls and throw them on the grill this summer. At $2, two thumbs up.

The next item on our list was a simple skewer of grilled chicken breast with a side of a hot mustard paste. To be honest, it didn't look like anything special, but it was very moist inside. The outside was nicely grilled and had a slight saltiness to it that was nice. I'm not a fan of hot mustard at all so stayed away, but Wifey thought it added a nice bite with the chicken - maybe next time I'll give it a whirl. It was good for all that it was and at $3 not bad, but it was probably last of the five items we ordered if I had to rank them.

Our next course was buta no kakuni - pork belly which was first braised and then grilled. This came with a sweet soy-based sauce, a side of mustard greens, and Chinese hot mustard. I had been waiting for this one. Pork belly is something I had never tried but watching TV shows like No Reservations and various others, it seemed like I was missing out. And oh-my-lord I was - this was excellent. Fatty goodness grilled - how can you top that?! The belly literally melted in your mouth and was so soft it was almost difficult to handle with the chopsticks (or I just suck with them - I'm open to that answer too). I'm a convert - this is a food of the gods! $8 was a steal for three pieces.

Gyoza was up next. The American term for them is Japanese pot stickers, which is sort of correct. They are little dumplings filled with pork, then fried. Biwa makes their own wrappers for them by hand, which is a rarity. This comes with it's own dipping sauce as well. We've made these at home and they were excellent, but never made our own wrappers - these were amazing. At $7 they were spendier than most places will charge for gyoza, but then most places don't have handmade wrappers. Thumbs up.

Our final selection was the Biwa ramen (dark and porky soy base) with miso pork loin added to it. For those who haven't had real ramen - and by real, I mean fresh noodles, not that crap they have at the grocery store for 4/$1 - this would be a revelation. (Sidebar: One of the things we wanted to have in Japan was real ramen, and despite the fact our hosts tended to think of this kind of meal like we do about McDonald's here, they finally relented when were in Nara. This was close to a tourist spot so it probably wasn't the best ever, but it was so good compared to anything we had ever eaten. Next time we go to Japan we aren't going to tell anyone so we can sample all the food we want!) This ramen was fantastic. The pork was a bit skimpy - four small slices for the added $4 - but it was cooked perfectly. The ramen was the perfect consistency and the soup base was something I could literally just drink. Yum!

It's interesting - when you go to Japanese places on the West side they tend to be dominated by Japanese and other Asian customers. At Biwa, at least while we were there, there were none. Granted it's a different part of town, so I have no idea if it's worth noting, but there it is.

Our total bill came to $34 for the five dishes, which wasn't too bad, especially when you consider the ramen was $13 of that by itself. I would absolutely recommend this place to anyone.

Is this the best izakaya in Portland? With Tanuki, Yuzu in Beaverton, and Syun in Hillsboro, I don't know yet - have to sample them all (went to Syun once a couple years ago and loved it). For those other three, at least for me, they have some stiff competition to measure up to.

I'm going to have fun finding out the answer!


Seriously, Por Que No?

I gotta admit something - I got inadvertantly spoiled when it comes to Mexican food when Wifey and I went to Hautulco (southern Pacific Mexico, about halfway between Acapulco and Guatemala) last year. Before then I liked Mexican food, but never really got it when people talked about "authentic" - to me, it was all burritos and tacos.

How we ended up in Huatulco is a crazy story too, because I will venture a bet that 99% of you have never heard of it. But you have heard of Puerto Vallerta and Cabo San Lucas, right? Huatulco is another area the Mexican government has chosen to turn into a tourist paradise, but it's never really taken off. They get tourists, but more of them seem to have come from Europe than come from the United States.

Still, we had never heard of it. So how did we get there? (Besides the obvious smartass answer of "plane" via Mexico City?)

Two years ago we had some work done on our house - painting, yardwork, remodeling, that kind of stuff. At the recommendation of our real estate agent we hired a company called Move-In Ready. They did a great job and Berenice was very helpful - good stuff. Turns out Berenice was born in Mexico and she kept talking about this place she had in Huatulco. She had also just bought a condo there and told us we could stay there if we ever wanted to go. At the time we smiled and said thanks, but a few months later when we wanted to plan our next vacation, we thought why the heck not?

So we went and it was great (hot as hell), but the food was absolutely amazing. I can't even remember what all we ate, but not one meal we had was bad. Fresh seafood, Oaxacan cheese, different types of beef - all inexpensive and all amazing.

After that, when we returned to Portland, none of our old haunts could measure up. Sad, right?

So through various blogs and food sites we kept hearing about this place in North Portland on Mississippi Avenue called Por Que No. Supposedly it was THE place to go in Portland. Skeptical a bit, it took us a while to go - and not least because it's not the most convenient place from our house.

Finally, this past Saturday, we decided to check it out. And yes, it was awesome.

Some things to know about Por Que No:

1 - It's always busy.
2 - You must wait in line and order before taking a table.
3 - The wait staff is friendly but efficient.
4 - It's well worth it.

We waited in line - in 95 degree heat - for about 10 minutes or so (there were about 5-6 orders in front of us). The place isn't air conditioned, but it wasn't horrible either.

We ordered a few different things to share: flautas carnitas (fried mini tacos with pork), a carnitas taco (with queso fresco), a carne asada taco, a pollo asado taco, and a glass of their sangria (the red, though the bianca looked good too).

The sangria we got immediately, and it was nice and fruity - a nice cold drink for the hot day. Our food took about 15 minutes or so to come out. We were splitting everything in half, so I attacked the tacos first while Wifey went for th the flautas (there were three of those).

All three tacos came on fresh corn tortillas, and all three were perfect. I used to hate corn tortillas, but then again I didn't know they could be so yummy - I need to find a place to buy them to use at home. I'm beginning to think the ground beef tacos with flour tortillas I make at home might not be all that authentic...and they definitely aren't as good as these morsels of scrumptiousness.

If I had to pick one of the three I liked best it would be the carnitas one, but that would be a crapshoot, really. And while those taco cart tacos were good, they weren't as good as these. The meat was cooked perfectly, tender and melt in your mouth good.

After I got halfway through each taco and Wifey had polished off half the flautas, we traded. The flautas are pieces of meat tightly rolled in a tortilla, then deep fried. They came topped with a fresh salsa and crema (similar to sour cream, but not as thick and not as strong of a taste) on top. These were amazing. The deep frying - which I'm not a huge fan of in general - wasn't too much; it added the perfect amount of crunch and flavor to complement the meat, not overpower it. The only bad thing I will say here is the meat at the end of the flauta - which is already cooked before being rolled up - might have been a tad tough due to be open to the high temp fryer. And no, that's not a good reason to knock them, but I'm throwing it out there.

We got the perfect amount of food too - and still had some room, which was good for what else we had planned in the neighborhood. Four tacos would be a good meal, six if you want to be stuffed silly - and they have enough kinds they could all be different.

As I said, we are almost never in this part of town, so we decided to explore a tad. This area seems to have been revitalized a bit recently. The idea of revitalization in itself is something I'm not entirely sure I fully endorse - rarely does it help the people, only the area, simply pushing the people in these poorer areas that get revitalized someplace else when they can't keep up with the rent - but you can't argue that it gives those who can afford it some nice new options.

Holy crap that sounds pretentious - not how I mean for it to come across. I'll have to work on better words.

We walked up the street and stopped at a coffee shop called The Fresh Pot. We ordered a mocha - they use the ubiquitious Stumptown Coffee - with a small dollop of whip cream. Definitely a good cup. Also grabbed a lemon poppyseed scone, which came from Nuvrei - again, one mark of a good coffeeshop in our mind is they serve Nuvrei's fantastic pastries. The scone was good, though it wouldn't be at the top of my list to get again considering all the other good things they do.

Our next stop was a place called The Meadow. Wifey found this place from another blog or magazine or something, and it instantly became some place we had to check out. I mean, a store that sells different kinds of salts and high end chocolates, plus wines and flowers? How could that possibly be bad? And no, it's not bad, not bad at all. Well, except for the impact to my bank account...

We picked up some fleur de sel since we were about out, as well as some truffle salt. This stuff is not cheap, but being infused with bits ot truffles it's easy to understand why. We wanted it, but haven't used it for anything yet...what's good enough to be finished with truffle salt? Have to think about that some more. Also picked up some chocolate bars from Michel Cluziel and from Valrhona, as well as a couple chocolate caramels topped with finishing salt and bacon flavored chocolates (!!!) from Xocolatl de David. This store was air conditioned, so that was a nice respite.

They also have tons of other salts, such as various kinds of smoked salts and even one infused with the flavor of Japanese plums (it was nice and pinkish-purple). They also sold salt finishing sets, had a huge wall of various wines, and even have pink salt blocks you can buy to use for cutting foods on (to give them another bit of flavor). Someday.

As we walked back towards the car - with a few more places to add to our list to come back to Mississippi Avenue for - we passed this place called the ReBuilding Center. We didn't go in, but people remodeling can bring old anything there to be re-used - doors, lights, you name it. It caught our eye because when Move-In Ready was doing the work on our house Berenice mentioned they could take the stuff we didn't want here. That was fine with us, especially since it was a trek from home them taking it worked. She also said we should go out there and look for stuff, and then try this great little Mexican place across the street. At the time we just wanted the work on our house done, so forgot all about it.

So as we are standing in front of the ReBuilding Center, we looked across the street...at Por Que No. Berenice, we're sorry - we should have listened to you. If we had, it wouldn't have taken us two more years to find this fantastic food spot. She was right about all the suggestions in our house, she was right about a vacation in Huatulco, and she was right about Por Que No.

Now, one would think that would be enough for a day, but our hedonistic (when it comes to food) tendencies don't allow for that, especially when it comes to an area of town we really don't get to very often. After getting back to the baking car, we drove about ten blocks (seriously, it's hot, give me a break) to another coffee place, Albina Press. I can't honestly say I wanted coffee at this point, but it was close and supposedly as good as Coffeehouse Northwest, which we love.

We had to try, right?

They also use Stumptown, so we got another mocha (see, that's what we get at new places - easier to compare when you get the same drink across multiple shops). It was, again, excellent. I don't know that it was markedly better than The Fresh Pot thought - either place is good enough for me. I will say the barista at Albina Press did a fantastic job with the art from the steamed milk. Good enough for a picture, had I brought my camera (seriously, one of these days I'll learn).

After this we just had one more stop, but we had to drive a few miles to SE Division Street to get there. We took a roundabout drive through some neighborhoods, looking at houses. Not that we are buying, but seeing the different areas was intriguing. As we came up to Burnside Avenue - Portland's dividing line between North and South - we noticed we were right next to the Laurelhurst Market.

By day the Market operates a deli where you can get all kinds of meats in various marinades, things you won't find at a grocery story like pate and foie gras, and they make sandwiches. By night they operate a full restaurant. It's also owned by the same people who run Simpatica, so you knew we had to stop. Again, we weren't hungry...but we got a couple half sandwiches to bring home and put in the fridge anyway. Those are today's lunch, so maybe next post. (Nah, I'll just update this one. One sandwich was a turkey and bacon one, the other was a BBQ Beef one - slab with a bit of sauce, not shredded. Both were good sandwiches, but I don't think I need to go way, way out of my way like that for them. However, we will eventually go back to this place for dinner, and possibly some crazy stuff out of the deli case.)

The final stop was a place called Tart. They are known for frozen custard, something we had never had - but considering frozen custard is creamier and higher in fat than ice cream, there is zero chance that could be bad.

When we walked in the first thing we were asked is if we had been there before. Just a note, but even if you have a "No" will get you samples of the frozen custard and frozen yogurt. I like creamy, so the custard was better in my mind.

We both ordered the Saturday special, which was a medium order of custard with two cookies from Two Tarts Bakery, who specializes in miniature cookies. Wifey ordered plain vanilla and I ordered a vanilla/chocolate swirl - we both picked Two Tarts mini Oreo-like cookies for our "garnish." You don't normally get to pick your cookies - it's supposed to be the mini chocolate chip ones - but they were out, so he gave us a choice. And an extra one each, because they were out - like I needed that (but say no? yeah right...).

This was fantastic - creamy goodness all the way through. However, a medium, after all we had already eaten, was seriously too much; we should have shared. Did that stop either of us from finishing it? Of course not, that's silly!

Tart also has a Clover coffee machine, which supposedly makes the smoothest coffee ever. We tried this on one of our tours at a Starbucks in Seattle (Starbucks now owns Clover and is putting machines in select stores nationwide). Wifey likes it, but I'm not so sure. To me, it's almost too smooth...like whatever it does to the grounds takes out some of the uniqueness to those particular beans, or something like that. I think I need to try it once or twice more to really wrap my head around it.

Yeah, like we needed more coffee at this point.

We then managed to get back to the car to get home...we didn't make any more stops, but we did see something on. We passed a recent accident - police were on scene but that's all - where a Subaru wagon plowed into the side of a Lexus SUV (the big one, but the older model, no idea what it's called).

As we came up from behind all we could tell was the Subaru had T-boned the Lexus. As traffic moved past the accident we could tell the Subaru was done - it's entire front end was just destroyed. Now, it had hit the driver's side of the Lexus, so I fully expected to see similar damage on that vehicle.

Nope. Not a dent. Heck, I don't even think there was a scratch. That car probably drove away after the pesky Subaru had been cleared away. Apparently those Lexus SUVs are made out of the same thing as a tank...maybe I need one...

And the last thought of the day...

Wifey's mom has been staying with us through this hellishly hot weather, and she elected to stay home with the cats and dog while we went on our foodie adventure. We left Ruby in her crate, since she's big and can still intimidate, but apparently she also whined a bit while were gone. That is, until Wifey's mom began reading her poetry out loud.

Who knew our dog was so cultured? She doesn't like people or dogs much at all, but she's all for a rousing round of Japanese haiku.

The dog is almost seven years old and we still learn something new every day. Crazy.