In the perspective of Taichi Ishizuki, katsu sandwiches are about to explode in popularity within Portland’s restaurant scene.
He should know: Ishizuki has watched specific Japanese dishes gain footing in the United States again and again, first as a California restaurateur, and then as the CEO of global ramen empire Afuri. When he first opened Portland’s original Afuri location — the first shop in the United States — he watched people ask for knives and forks for their bowls of yuzu shio. Since then, Afuri opened several Portland locations, either as dumpling and noodle bars or full-on izakayas; the chain now operates ramen shops in cities like Los Angeles, Singapore, and Vancouver, B.C., and is continuing to grow. Ishizuki is in the process of opening a large-scale Slabtown “ramen-ery,” (like a roastery or brewery), where visitors can watch chefs make noodles and dumplings for the area’s several shops. But he’s also expanding beyond the world of ramen and gyoza, with something unlike any of Portland’s Afuri relatives: A katsu sandwich shop and Japanese bakery called Tanaka, taking over the former Blue Star Donuts location on Morrison.
“The next Japanese food culture to become a part of the food culture here is shokupan and Japanese baking,” Ishizuki says. “Sushi became sushi — it’s in English now, it’s a part of the language. The katsu sando, it’s already becoming part of the culture. … It’s the next big thing.”
The foundation of Tanaka is not its shokupan or anything at Afuri — rather, the restaurant’s origins can be traced back to a Tokyo restaurant known as Kushikatsu Tanaka. Kushikatsu Tanaka specializes in the Osaka dish kushikatsu, a skewer of deep-fried meats and vegetables; the Tanaka family serves its kushikatsu with its famous katsu sauce, a 70-year-old recipe invented by Yukichi Tanaka. Kushikatsu Tanaka is sort of the grandfather of the yet-to-open Portland Tanaka, but instead of serving kushikatsu, the restaurant will use its katsu sauce with a variety of katsu sandwiches.
Katsu, for those who don’t know, refers to a style of fry where thin cuts of meat are dredged in panko. At Tanaka — set to open this spring, as the Oregonian first reported — the restaurant will offer a wide variety of katsu meats, dredged in house panko — Pork, chicken, vegan proteins, Oregon rockfish, or even wagyu beef, when available. Ishizuki is particularly proud of the restaurant’s rockfish sandwich. “That was absolutely a home run,” he says.
All of those proteins will be served on loaves of shokupan, or Japanese milk bread, baked in-house; the restaurant will also offer a vegan version of shokupan made with oat milk, which may be the city’s only dairy-free milk bread. The loaves of shokupan will also serve as the foundation for Japanese fruit sandwiches, seasonal fruit suspended in whipped cream between two pieces of milk bread.
But the ovens at Tanaka won’t just churn out loaves of shokupan: the team is currently developing a menu of pastries made with Pacific Northwestern flour, including things like mochi doughnuts and matcha croissants. Ishizuki plans to schedule Tanaka’s bakers so they bake throughout the day — that way, the cafe always smells like freshly baked pastries and bread.
Good Coffee will cover the cafe’s coffee, used for espresso and drip; Sam Purvis, the co-founder of the Portland coffee chain, is a friend of Ishizuki, and will develop a specific roast for Tanaka. But the core of the restaurant will always be its katsu sandwiches; it’s where Ishizuki’s clear passion lies.
“We’ll toast it on the edges, very crispy, but the katsu, it’s also crispy,” he says. “So once you bite, all the juices come out. That layer of textures, that’s what I like to design in a sando: crispy, soft, crispy, juicy. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Tanaka will open at 1155 SW Morrison.