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!

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