Finally, 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!)
I 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.
There’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.
Because 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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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:
Another 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?
I 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.
Kung 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.
I cannot wait to explore this new place in its entirety. Now, all we need is Ethiopian.