asian restaurants in eugene: a reevaluation

IMG_2947Finally, some movement on the Asian food scene in Eugene.  We’ve been waiting for years, and in the last two years or so, we’ve had some wonderful developments downtown and out in Springfield.

I say “Asian” as if it’s some unified front, and in Eugene, sometimes it is.  There’s a group of wonderfully industrious and creative Korean families who own not only the majority of the Korean restaurants in town, but the fusion noodle houses, most of the Japanese joints, and now Vietnamese pho places. (Not sure about the Thai restaurants!)

IMG_2563I love it, for example, that Bon Mi, the new bahn mi/pho place at Broadway and Pearl has a cold case with about a dozen homemade Korean kim chi takeout offerings.  Sometimes I order the spicy squid or cucumber and eat it with the best pho in town.  (The broth keeps getting better and better.)

And I’ve spoken at length about Café Arirang on E. Broadway at Ferry Street Bridge, the best Korean restaurant in town, and Noodle N Thai at 5th and Main in Springfield, the best Thai restaurant in town.

And yet.  The established restaurants make some assumptions about Eugene tastes, tastes I’ve been trying to combat for many years in my raising awareness blogging campaign:  Too sweet.  Too meat-heavy, too teriyaki. Huge portions of mediocre food.  Not spicy enough. Too Americanized. Lack of variation. All the stuff that healthy eaters and locavores and F-the-Food-System activists are also battling.  I’ve even undertaken a rather risky cross-town experiment in judging P.F. Chang’s against two popular Chinese dives.

I understand that the average Oregon palate has in the past leaned toward the sweet and meaty with lots of starch on the side, and therefore it is profitable to give the people what they want.  But offering a range of options is one way to educate the Oregonian not versed in different flavors, and perhaps more importantly from a business standpoint, to distinguish one’s restaurant from the other Asian-American places in town.

IMG_2730 IMG_2731There’s nothing wrong with the Eugene standby Toshi’s Ramen, for example, but I like it that there is new competition with decent ramen, Tokyo Ramen on 17th and Pearl, that has many more offerings and a charming interior.  (I’d like to see a gyoza battle occur so both places could improve their gyoza, but that’s just being selfish.)

I’ve noticed an influx of Chinese and Vietnamese students at the University, and there are flourishing Korean and Japanese communities in town.  And lo and behold, a growing Filipino population!  So, so, so happy that this is the case.

IMG_2981Because yes, restaurants are starting to meet the needs of these folks, and finally, the needs of those of us who aren’t of Asian heritage but really want the kind of food we eat in larger cities in the U. S. and abroad. We know how to use chopsticks, and we aren’t gastronomic rubes.  No, we may not want to eat chicken feet or duck intestines every day, but we do want to try them, and we want our food slightly sour or hot or or fermented instead of fried on the buffet, or swimming in sweet sauce.

Or if it’s a buffet and fried, serve us instead of sweet-n-sour pork the delicious lumpia and vinegar-garlic marinated milkfish I had the other day at the brand new Springfield mom-and-pop shop Maynila Filipino Cuisine on 32nd and Main.  The menu changes every day, but the pork adobo and delicious soups are there daily.  They also serve Filipino baked goods.  And fried cubes of pork belly.  (N.b.: vegetarians might struggle here.)

Let me say this again because it’s so monumental: an authentic, cheap, wonderful Filipino restaurant in the Eugene area.

So here’s my Call for Menus.  We want authentic standards that might not be considered exotic.  We want dim sum, nasi goreng, oyster pancake, saba shioyaki, and banh xeo.    We’re curious about the fish in the tank and the poultry on the roof and the herbs in the soup.

IMG_2626And we want good vegetables, too, and we’ll pay more for them.  You are welcome to scorn those of us who want a gloopy stew of cabbage, carrots, and scallion “stir-fry.”  Steamed broccoli?  No thanks.  We now grow bok choi and satsuma imo and gai lan and ginger and daikon in the southern Willamette Valley, and we would LOVE to see you cook with it.

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One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made recently is close to home for me: good Chinese next to campus.  The special menu at Teriyaki Boy, 13th and Kincaid (next to QDoba), pictured in the first image on this page and the two above.  Teriyaki Boy is a chain, I believe, and serves sushi of average quality and a passable Chinese buffet.

But that’s not the reason to go.  The reason to go is the irrepressible spirit of someone wonderful in the kitchen, a chef who insisted on devising his own made-to-order menu.  It’s written on the hood over the buffet in back, and there are now cheat sheet menus by the register.  Here’s where you can get your offal on or sample some good Chinese comfort food, like fish bone and tofu soup, or Hainanese gingery garlicky green oniony steamed chicken on the bone.  For the less adventurous, the noodles and noodle soups are very good (the very first image is beef noodles), and I quite like the cumin beef, which lacks the ma la numbing quality of a good Sichuanese version, but I bet he’d add it if you (I) knew how to ask.  Is this the best Chinese food in the world?  No.  But it is head and shoulders above every other Chinese place I’ve tried in Eugene.  (Also worth a try is East Meets West a few doors down, if only for the dumplings. Pretty uneven quality, in my view, but I’ve had a decent dish or two for value prices.)

Oh, and Teriyaki Boy serves hot pot!  Half spicy and half not, or fully either, you can dip your meat and vegetables in a warming broth, kind of like a Chinese fondue.  Go with a group.

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Japanese, you say? (I’m always being asked where to get sushi in Eugene.) I’ve written at length about my favorite restaurant, Kamitori, one of the only Japanese-owned sushi joints in town and in my view, one of the only restaurants that could hold its own in a big city.  Chef Masa Itai trained internationally and sources his fish from the Oregon coast and Japan, among other places.  He has a keen eye and a spectacular palate.  He also doesn’t shy away from serving us unusual food.  For that I am grateful.  Above, you may recognize toro and amaebi and a snapper-family fish and Japanese anago, but the uni (sea urchin, bottom left) were the standout.  Given the size and slight roughness of the little guys, I’m positive these were hand-harvested instead of shipped from Japan in that little wooden box we’re all familiar with.  Quite frankly, I had never tasted uni like these in my life.

Chef Masa is always coming up with little surprises when you let him do his thing.  He serves beautiful standards, and adds treats when he finds them, like the giant clam nigiri below. For the next two weeks or so, he’s serving shirako, cod milt, in various forms for the adventurous.  I really enjoyed it with ponzu.  Hurry — it’s a Japanese delicacy and you won’t likely be able to get it anywhere else in Eugene, or perhaps even Oregon.

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I’m concerned about him, quite frankly, because of a chronic hand problem.  He had to stop serving sushi for lunch to rest it, but still offers sashimi and everything else for lunch, and sushi for dinner.  I had the only good katsudon (tonkatsu, pork cutlet, over rice with egg) in Eugene a couple of weeks ago at his restaurant.  He made it Japanese-style, with a raw egg that cooks over the piping hot pork cutlet just before you serve it.  If you usually like fried food, try it!

And then you’ll be an expert when Tokyo Tonkatsu, owned by the same folks who operate Tokyo Ramen, opens at Charnelton and Broadway (across from Noisette) this spring.  Here’s a note they’ve posted on their shop window:

IMG_2987Another notable sushi place in town doing creative things, but a very different animal from Kamitori, is Mame in the Whiteaker, which might appeal to those who like more creative, high-end fusion sushi for very decent prices.  I have to confess that the lima-bean interior makes me a little nauseous, but Chef Taro sources his fish carefully and is willing to play with his food.  He’s one to watch.  At a recent New Year’s Eve party at the restaurant, we had a selection of nigiri that included rare duck breast, toro with truffle, snapper with plum sauce, beef heart with sauerkraut, and monkfish liver with uni and scallion.  See?

IMG_4065I see!  So let’s see more of these types of innovative restaurants.  I’m loving every minute, and I really want to urge everyone who loves good food in Eugene to go try the new Asian offerings.  They need all of us to support them and let them know that their vision of an improved Eugene dining scene is shared by many of us.

Updated to add:  And if all that isn’t enough to convince you, I just had lunch a new Sichuan restaurant.

YES, A NEW SICHUAN RESTAURANT.  IN EUGENE.

IMG_2988Kung Fu Sichuan Bistro (an unfortunate name) is located in the same lot as Off the Waffle at 25th and Willamette, in the spot vacated by Som Tum Thai.  The owners have just moved here from Los Angeles, and the spot was packed with Chinese nationals, mostly students, when I was there.  In fact, there were only two white people in the restaurant, me and some skeezy older dude chatting up young women.  I spoke with two people about their own experiences in the week or so Kung Fu has been open, and they related similar crowds (well, maybe not the guy).  So. OMG, YES!

And the food is quite good. A bit salty, but a charge of ma la zinginess; what seemed to be real Sichuan peppers because they didn’t hold back and they weren’t as spicy as the regular Chinese red peppers; and a wide range of dishes on the menu, including hot pot in various variants, fried cumin fish, fish with a bath of chili sauce, pork with preserved vegetable, stir-fried potato threads, chicken with chilis, etc., etc., etc.  The mini dry pot with beef and peanuts and my standby dish, dry fried “Chef’s Special” green beans, are below.  You can see the full menu on Facebook.

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I cannot wait to explore this new place in its entirety.  Now, all we need is Ethiopian.

14 thoughts on “asian restaurants in eugene: a reevaluation

  1. mainlymagyar 18 February 2013 / 1:45 pm

    Sigh…..the only thing missing in the Eugene/Springfield area now is a good Chinese restaurant. Heck, even a MEDIOCRE Chinese restaurant. :-(
    At least the other Asian options are well covered.

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  2. nightwork 18 February 2013 / 1:52 pm

    Agree about the need for Chinese, but I disagree about everything else being well covered. No Lao or Cambodian cuisine anywhere around here.

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  3. drfugawe 18 February 2013 / 3:08 pm

    Thank you much for this! As a once-a-month, or so, visitor to Eugene, it’s hard to get a good handle on what’s happening – or even what’s good. Very helpful stuff. We have eaten recently at Noodle n Thai, Toshi’s, and Kamitori, and enjoyed them all, especially the latter where Chef Masa’s insistence on authenticity is quite daring in Eugene – but it was good to see a filled house on the night we were there. Perhaps that’s a sign that Eugene’s future dining experiences may be on the rise – fingers crossed. And eager to try Teriyaki Boy and Bon Mi soon.

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  4. mainlymagyar 19 February 2013 / 9:07 am

    Ah, so true nightwork. No Burmese either. But still, a pretty good selection for a city the size of Eugene!

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  5. Bruce 19 February 2013 / 3:04 pm

    Lao, Cambodian, Burmese? Are you kidding me? Ain’t no way anyone in their right mind would open such a place in such a small population center as Eugene. Google any or all of the three for NYC (18,000,000 people) and see how many places you find. I agree that all three cuisines are outstanding, but I’m afraid you’re going to need a good cookbook (they’re available…I cook all three) and Sunrise Mkt.

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  6. nightwork 19 February 2013 / 3:22 pm

    Bruce, It’s not the size of this area, but the demographics. I grew up in Madison, WI, and the city population there isn’t much more than Eugene/Springfield (and definitely wasn’t back in the 80s-90s). And, like here, it’s a college town. There were several Lao places and at least one Cambodian restaurant (don’t recall any Burmese then, but there is now) that all stuck around and did fine (one, Lao Laan Xang, is often listed one of the best Lao places in the country). This was in part due to the larger SE Asian immigrant population there, but they were never the bulk of the patrons in any of these places.

    Now, I don’t disagree that opening a restaurant of this type would be quite risky here, but I think it has more to do with local dining tendencies than just population size.

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  7. Bruce 19 February 2013 / 4:28 pm

    One way it could work would be via the food cart first route. Just got back from a month in Laos and the food, particularly in the NW (Lao Isaan), was amazing. Maybe we could get a Pok Pok branch and pray they didn’t dumb it down to old white folks (of which I’m one) tastebuds. Oh well, one positive of not having any such places is that you learn to cook the stuff at home. I bow daily to the altar of Sunrise Market!

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  8. Spencer 19 February 2013 / 11:34 pm

    Have you been to Spring Garden in Springfield. I only went there once, but the Chinese food is authentic and popular with UO Chinese students. They have hot pots which I did not try, but the fish maw soup was quite good.

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  9. Eugenia 20 February 2013 / 8:32 am

    I think Lao/Cambodian/Burmese would be a tough sell in Eugene, but I’d certainly patronize any Southeast Asian place, and I’m sure many of us would. The more competition the better — and if we could get more cooks who give a shit in the smaller Chinese places, it would drastically improve the ones we have. I agree with @nightwork that the real problem is that we just don’t dine out enough in Eugene, so it’s hard for any niche restaurant to stay afloat.

    @Spencer, not yet, but it’s been very much on my mind. Plan to go next week. Spring Garden is not for the faint of heart. Will report.

    @Bruce, there’s a new Asian market in town on 11th near the campus area. It’s small and I’ve heard conflicting assessments, but worth checking out.

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  10. mainlymagyar 20 February 2013 / 4:42 pm

    OK. Looks like I’ll have to try Kung Fu ( fingers crossed!).

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  11. jackie barbour 20 February 2013 / 6:51 pm

    Do you know what happened to Som Tum-will they relocate somewhere else?

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  12. Kris Jacobson (@umamitruffledog) 20 February 2013 / 7:47 pm

    Great piece and thanks for the reviews. I’m going to have to catch up on some of these restaurants. Ummmmm, dim sum?????? Anywhere?

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  13. growandresist 20 February 2013 / 9:03 pm

    Have you been to Izakaya Meiji? I went in January and really liked it!

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  14. Camille 21 February 2013 / 3:31 pm

    Found Kung Fu Bistro and enjoyed a delicious lunch. We, too, were the only non-Asian people there. I wish for their success and I hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate as every restaurant that has been there before.

    Yes, patiently awaiting Ethiopian cuisine.

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