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!