My father does not like strawberries or Japanese food, both for the same reason – his eyes are excited but then his tongue is disappointed. He likes strawberry jam and he likes tempura, sweet and rich and salty enough for his hearty palate.
His love, too, of wild strawberries made me wonder if he just hasn’t had good strawberries in a long time, or if he’s ever had good Japanese food. As soon as strawberry season rolled in in Oregon, I knew that the former had to be true (I don’t think I ever want to live somewhere without berries this good), and after dragging him out to Biwa when he came to visit, the latter idea started to sparkle. Biwa is my favorite Japanese restaurant so far in Portland, an izakaya tucked away on 9th and Ankeny, just south of Farm.
Well-coated concrete floors and unfinished ceilings give Biwa a very haute appeal, but the warm lighting and recycled Douglas fir woodwork make it accessible and welcoming. There is a note at the bottom of the menu that lists all of its staff by name, and every one of these hardworking izakaya gurus has been knowledgeable and caring about everything that they have made and served us, without an ounce of pretention. This is the soul of foodie Portland – a love of eating, an appetite for daring, a balance of realism.
Food: every time I’ve come here we’ve chosen off the menu with no sense of individual ownership – share everything, because everything is worth sharing. The last time I went, with Farzad, we started off with the seaweed and lotus root salad.
This is a far cry from the seaweed salad you get at the megamart sushi cooler; after the first bite, I knew I could never go back to that gelatinous pile of greens again. This tastes like the ocean. A boldly romantic statement, I know. It deserves it. Aqueous, ethereal, with a light touch of vinegar to help things along. You don’t just eat this salad, you breathe it in.
The grilled fava beans were almost there, but didn’t quite hit the mark. Farzad, who grew up in Iran and has spent time in many fava-intensive households, said they were just undercooked. I imagine this is a result of being grilled over crazy-high heat to make them pretty but just a little too toothsome. A big chunk of the menu here is devoted to foods grilled so simply, though, and I am eager to explore it.
It’s difficult to take a good picture of deep-fried foods, especially when you want nothing more than to be eating them. Such is the case with the deep-friend kimchee. This stuff is crack. The first time I came here, I was with Zeke, and he ordered this and I tasted it and I was so overwhelmed with this new flavor sensation that I didn’t know what to make of it, couldn’t be sure if I liked it. I kept thinking about it, though, through the udon, through the grilled rice ball, through the tea-and-rice porridge, and I was still mulling it over as my head hit the pillow that night. When I woke up the next day, all I wanted was deep-friend kimchee. I went back that night. The server understood.
Finally, the udon. It’s a mainstay of my visits here, handmade noodles in a deep, rich broth, with veggies on top. Slurpable and filling. I, like many vegetarians, am always so happy when the soup at a place is one that I can eat because it’s not made with animal stock, and I’m even happier when said soup is actually delicious and not just made with water. (Water as a base for udon, though, would just be sacrilege.) Biwa makes a vegan udon and an omnivorous udon, as they do with many of their menu items. It’s so nice being able to say, “I’d like all of these made vegan please…” before I begin my order, and not get an eye roll from the server.
I could gush about Biwa all night, but in the end, I will say simply that I think my father no longer crosses Japanese food off his list of theoretical dinner ventures. Next year, I’ll make sure he’s here for strawberry season.
215 SE 9th Ave
open daily 5 to midnight