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.