Every time I step foot into Tanuki, my basic perception of what a sake bar should be takes on a drastic tectonic shift. Truthfully, I'm hard pressed to even describe the cuisine, which I'm eager to do with anyone within earshot. Upscale izakaya? Japanese tapas through a Northwest lens? No matter how I try, Tanuki continues to defy description as well as challenge my own expectations, but in a good way. Every time I step foot into Tanuki, it gets better.
Like its shapeshifting spirit namesake, Tanuki's menu changes daily. It wouldn't be accurate to call it an evolving menu, because that would imply a sort of linear trend. No, it would actually be more apt to describe the menu as more of a reflection of the chef's whimsy. Items appear, disappear and reappear, and I've found the best approach is to steady yourself with a familiar dish when you can.
One such dish for me is the uni onigiri, a dish that's simple in design but oh so decadent in result. A riff on the rice ball (a staple of izakaya cuisine), the onigiri features swift touches of Japanese red pepper to give the rice just enough heat. The real star, though, is the sea urchin housed within. With its custardy consistency and deep flavor, this is one of my easy favorites, a compass star that helps me navigate the menu.
Another great baseline would be any preparation involving rafutei, which is pork belly braised in Okinawan wine (awamori). Moreso than your usual pork belly dish, the braise imparts a whole new dimension of flavor on top of the familiar rich and meaty tastes of pork. At Tanuki, you might find it with noodles, on a skewer, or in a salad. No matter the preparation, the rafutei is bound to please, and in fact it's been quite a treat to see its versatility.
Once you've got your baseline, then it's time to start exploring. Duck wings in spicy chili sauce! Fermented soy on toast! Eel with pickled egg!
Because I'm the type of diner that geeks out of flavors I've never had before, it's quite evident why I'm in love with Tanuki. It escapes the bounds of typical pub faire, even in a cuisine as rich and complex as Japanese.
The dish that one me over, though, at first glance and at first bite was the okonomiyaki. I joke that all of my favorite foods are either served in a bowl, or served on a pancake, and this certainly bears the latter truth out. Expertly griddled, the okonomiyaki offers a savory take on the batter arts, providing a great vehicle for humble yet firm flavors such as escolar or bay shrimp (and once I even saw pulled pork there; that menu item has not yet returned).
Moreso than the flavor, it's due to the dish's rarity that caught my eye. There isn't a restaurant serving okonomiyaki within hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. Serving it on a menu is a feat onto itself, and the fact that it's done so expertly just gilds the lily.
Every time I walk out of Tanuki, I think about my past experiences in the loud, smoky, boisterous bowels of Japanese izakayas (and the close Korean cousin, the sojubang). Tanuki isn't offering to replace them, just offer a new twist on a style of restaurant that was already among my favorites. I now realize that bar food can be so much more, and probably is if I looked hard enough. Luckily I don't have to look that hard. Every time I walk out of Tanuki, I can't wait to walk back in.
413 NW 21st Ave, Portland, OR 97209