Reader Survey Best Restaurants in Portland 2012 #16. New review 10/15/12
A lot has changed about Portland since my review of Biwa in 2008. Sure, Portland still isn’t much of a sushi town as compared to Seattle, Vancouver BC, or San Francisco. Yet good ramen and izakaya style dining were still a rarity in Portland in ’08, and Biwa was one of the leaders of the pack. I raved about the restaurant for their inventiveness, deep honor to tradition and obsessive commitment to quality. Fast forward to 2012. Now, with a good handful of both ramen and izakaya joints sprinkled about town, and very good ramen food carts, does Biwa still hold its own? The answer is yes; absolutely. Biwa is as good as ever.
Ramen was THE hot trend for a while, but remember, in Japan and China it has been around for a few hundred years. Warm, steamy, not-too-expensive and always satisfying, ramen is the perfect dish for Portland’s eight months of weather tending on the gray and cool side. Izakaya has now become a household word, and is as much an approach to going out to eat, as it is about the food. Izakaya matches Portland’s love of small plates, shared dishes, casual dining, drinking, and excitement over new tastes.
Noodles are an important part of Japanese food culture. In fact, the Japanese are as obsessive with their noodles as the Italians are with pasta; both share food influences brought by countries as diverse as Portugal and China. In Japan, noodles show up in stir fries, served chilled in the summer, and come topped with Wafuu style curry year round, but nowhere are they better loved than in soups. Thick wheat udon noodles might be served in a traditional broth made from dried bonito fish flakes and kombu seaweed, while Chinese-influenced ramen in rich meat broths make for a filling and cheap worker’s meal or a way to revive after a long night of drinking. While Biwa is neither a traditional noodle house nor a straight izakaya restaurant, they have found a happy balance between the two. Located in the basement of an old imposing church (they share the same building as Simpatica Dining Hall) in the industrial and pedestrian sparse SE 9th and Pine, there is no sign indicating the entrance, and parking can be difficult to find. Yet the space itself makes for a cozy den, with an open kitchen and corresponding counter seating, and a nicely divided dining room. The glow from candles on the tables and long rows of tall wooden booths against the walls keep everything from feeling too industrial.
The menu reflects the spirit of Izakaya, including echoes of the current Japanese love of certain foreign cuisines such as Hawaiian marinated fish poke or Korean dishes. Much of the food at Biwa is made up of small plates, but they are far from fussy or precious. It’s more like the Japanese equivalent of pub grub or the down-to-earth food found at countless tapas bars in Spain – simple, but freshly made and inspired. There are so many terrific dishes on Biwa’s menu it’s difficult to pick the standouts.
One big change at Biwa is the evolution and expansion of their sashimi. It’s always fresh, cut properly, and served with inspiration. You might find Atlantic diver scallop with basil and dashi alongside barbarian-style fried, pickled mackerel, while on another night there might be Maguro tuna served with avocado, Korean chili and ginger. On a recent visit I tasted a nightly special of escolar cured with soy sauce. Silky, rich and buttery, it reminded me a bit of the best cold smoked cod (often called sable) you find in some East Coast Jewish delis. Served with greens, shaved carrot and daikon the escolar was a highlight.
Biwa continues to rock the Ramen too, but gone are the homemade noodles. They have been swapped out with store-bought ones, that are frankly better than Biwa’s often inconsistent house-made version. The milky tonkotsu pork broths and light soyu broth are also retired, replaced by a signature broth of their very own made from chicken and pork, and tare (a dried fish broth made with things such as mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce and other “secret” ingredients). There are still several wonderful add-ons for $1-4 each, including chasyu pork, grilled egg, wakame, kimchi greens, and now a melt-in-your mouth slow-roasted pork shoulder. Thick and chewy wheat udon noodles are often the Cinderella to the more popular ramen. At Biwa they shine on equal footing. At $5 during late happy hour (9 pm to closing) both ramen and udon are a bargain here, but are still a perfectly good deal at $9 during other hours.
Other dishes vary depending on what’s in season and where the kitchen’s creativity seems to lead them. There’s always a fabulous house-made tskuemono pickle and a kimchi plate. Gyoza still makes its delicate and tender appearance, and the Yukke Korean beef tartare continues to highlight owner/chef Gabe Rosen and his staff’s knowledge of how to handle meat. With its smooth chop, intense sesame oil, garlic and god-knows-what-else, it perfectly encapsulates the Biwa approach to balanced flavors that pop on the tongue while the presentation remains classic.
Hot dishes on the other hand are light, but substantive, including marinated karaage fried chicken, pork fried rice, miso soup, sake steamed clams, and sweet fork-tender, slow-cooked pork belly simmered with kobocha squash. Biwa also makes one of my all-time favorites; the Japanese version of the sandwich, known as onigiri. These triangles of rice stuffed with a pickled umboshi plum, or fish such as salmon, come wrapped with nori, or as a grilled, un-stuffed version. Onigiri are highly satisfying and a good foil to the more intense and salty flavors of the soup, pickles or other dishes.
Izakaya restaurants often specialize in yakimono, which means “grilled things.” These are skewers and small plates such as the dengaku eggplant topped with a salty-sweet seasoned miso sauce, wonderfully fleshy and flavorful fresh shitake mushrooms, crispy mackerel, tender Kalbi marinated Korean beef ribs, or more intense offerings like grilled chicken hearts. Biwa continues to do a great job with each skewer coming out perfectly cooked. Try the chicken hearts, or isobeyaki grilled mochi for a real treat.
The happy hour, divided into 5-6:30 pm and 9-10 pm, is one of the best bargains around. You will find small bottles of better than average sake or well drinks for $5, $2 meat skewers, and other small plates such as onigiri and miso soup in the $2-$4 range. The only catch is that you have to order and eat at the counter to get happy hour prices, which may not work for large groups. Ramen and udon noodle soups are $5 (add ons are $1-$4 extra) and available from 9 pm to closing. If the Biwa burger is available (and it usually is late night), get it. Many feel it’s one of the best in town. A juicy burger with the addition of rich, smoky cha siu BBQ pork, and spicy kimchi mayo, it sums up a lot about the evolution of Biwa – Japanese pub grub, refined but not trying to take itself too seriously, and it works!
Finally, there is the extensive drink menu. Cocktails include concoctions that play off tradition, like the Nikka Sour made with Maker’s Mark, citrus and palm sugar, or the Biwa Martini with vodka and top shelf sake in lieu of the typical vermouth. Beer, sodas, teas, and other drinks such as wine are available, but it’s really hard to get past the sake list, which is well-chosen, featuring a wide range from dry to sweet, to unfiltered and a few rare varieties than can cost upwards of $40.00 for a 6 oz glass. I appreciate that Biwa offers detailed descriptions of the sake on their menu to help novices.
Service is generally stellar, some of the best in Portland, with an infectious enthusiasm about the menu. They are more than happy to take the time to answer any questions. Unfortunately, the kitchen has a few consistency issues. Ramen can vary depending on the day; a few times noodles are overcooked, or broth is very light one night, and super rich the next. Occasionally the food is too salty, while other times everything is on point.
Biwa has worked hard to become one of Portland’s better restaurants. It is very popular, so expect a wait during busy times, especially if you come with a group. Every time I’ve eaten at Biwa, I leave satisfied and happy. That’s the real gauge to me. Although the menu is not wildly innovative by Japanese standards, it’s not meant to be. This is damn good Japanese comfort food, refined. So whether I crave a long night of saké and nibbles among a large group of friends, or a simple bowl of ramen and a salad alone after work, I find myself returning to Biwa time and time again.
- Address: 215 SE 9th Ave., Portland OR 97214 Map
- Phone: (503) 239-8830
- Website: BiwaRestaurant.com
- Hours: daily 5pm – midnight
- Happy Hour: 5-6:30pm and 9-10pm
- Reservation Policy: n/a
- Noise Level: moderate/loud
- Price: low/moderate. Can add up quickly
Food Dude says
I was here last night, and had a pretty darn good meal. The ramen is really good, and I bring enough home for lunch the next day. They really have improved since Biwa first opened.
Great review. I agree on all counts.
It is indeed hard to find vegan options at a Japanese place, unless it is at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto (I speak from experience!).
Here’s the only onigiri cartoon I know:
I love Biwa, including the kimchi, all the yakimono (especially the shisito peppers, hangar steak, and pork belly), the ahi poke, and that absolutely great tartar served with a raw quail egg and cucumber slices – I like to scoop a bit of the seasoned meat onto the cucumber as an impromptu bruschetta of sorts.
I’m not feeling their soups. The texture on the noodles – both the ramen and udon – are not to my liking. The ramen for me was a big disappointment, as I was expecting a hearty shoyu or shio (or tonkatsu) broth and noodles and toppings presented in the style of more traditional ramenya houses and supermarkets I’ve had in Southern California and the Bay Area. That’s fine, I don’t expect Biwa to excel at this narrow focus (and much of it is my expectations), everything else is stellar enough to have warranted many return visits for me.
I’ve had wonderful service here – like Toro Bravo, the format of many small bites, ordered and delivered in staggered fashion, really plays to my style of dining.
Also, I haven’t had the ramen since November, and the udon most recently right before New Year’s…but the other night the ramen coming out of the kitchen did look better…at $5 at the counter I will definitely give it another try.
Dante Amorphic says
CBF – Based on your review I will be giving Biwa another try. We went there a couple of times right after they opened and had pretty average meals…. but it sounds like they have hit their stride…. On a side note I did hear that Hakatamon Restaurant,(next to Uwajimaya) as of April 1, will now be serving ramen as well! (no joke)The chef just got back from a site visit to Japan and is apparently all inspired to serve ramen.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Dante, do try Biwa again. I’m not easily impressed with most Japanese food in Portland and I too had some issues with them when they opened, but Biwa has really come a long way. I honestly think they could be my favorite restaurant right now (Japanese or otherwise). Some of their food I crave daily.
Nice to know about Hakatamon.
Thanks for the review – I’m looking forward to eating some good Japanese food in Portland!
CBF, spot on review. Even the “imperfections” that you point out are in line with my experiences there, but still I’m very pleased with this place overall. And I also was not impressed with Biwa when they first opened, but they have really figured things out and are now drawing me in week in, week out.
Having just gotten back from Vancouver, BC and experiencing all the great ramenyas and izakayas up there, I’m damn happy we have a place like Biwa here in Portland.
Now if only every street corner in Portland had a shop that served homemade ramen noodles in a rich pork broth ….
My biggest criticism of Biwa is that my jacket smelled like a Japanese diner for 2 weeks after I ate there. Still worth the food though.
i love love love Biwa. I would go there more often if it wasn’t across town.
I strongly recommend the octopus pancake!
I see they no longer have the 9 pm happy hour, only from 5 – 6:30.
Happy hour is available all evening long if you sit at the counter. You’ll smell more like a hibachi, but it’s worth it.
I had really high hopes for Biwa when they first opened. I thought that an izakaya-like restaurant would be a big hit in PDX, and I love that kind of food. I was disappointed in my first couple of visits, but I remained a true believer. I was concerned that their location was too much off the beaten path, so I mounted an aggressive word-of-mouth effort to get patrons in the door.
Biwa has certainly improved since they first opened. The service can still be a little spotty and the ramen stock is too rich and meaty for my tastes. But otherwise it’s great! Who else makes their own noodles and makes you a musubi to order?
Finally made it to Biwa last night. Had a really great meal. My companion and I split a bunch of the small plates—I’ll have to come back and try the noodles some other time. Everything was good, but there were a few standouts. The beef tartare was amazing. Pretty spicy, but not so much that it masked the subtler flavors. Also, I was blessed with a double yolk in my egg, which the chefs thought was really cool. Even more amazing was the octopus pancake that lilhuna recommends above. Crispy and chewy and oh so good. Also, we got a few of the little skewers and must say that both the spring onion and the garlic were excellent. Very simple but perfectly executed.
Lani Weiss says
Biwa ROCKS all around – and in no small part due to the talent that is working the line! I’m newish to Portland, and I wonder how much the owner/chef cooked while at Viande? I thought that place was just a butcher shop (albeit not just any butcher shop, I know that much). Or did he train extensively under some Japanese chefs in town? Seems like there’s someone very passionate about cooking hidden in that kitchen. Hopefully that person/s won’t quit – or if they do, I hope they open another Japanese place right down the street — gotta get my fix!
The past two visits, the udon was too tough.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Lani, the owner of Biwa, Gabe Rosen has studied cooking, language and food culture extensively in Japan. And he’s usually at Biwa cooking, expediting, or otherwise overseeing the line and dining room every night.
Lani Weiss says
Cuisine Bonne Femme, a degree in Japanese doth not a chef make, my friend.
Who’s got the chops in that kitchen? And why isn’t his hard work acknowledged in the press or on the menu at all? People are wondering. To not give credit for the refined food reflects poorly on Gabe Rosen, and in a restaurant-fickle, small town like Portland, that doesn’t seem very smart.
Are you the person at Biwa who soaks the wakame or something? Turns on the hibachi? Feeling a bit unloved?
Why would ordinary “people” even know who Gabe Rosen is, much less care who his staff are? These must be the same people who sit around writhing in agony that members the E Street Band aren’t guest judges on American Idol.
quo vadis says
“a degree in Japanese doth not a chef make, my friend.
Who’s got the chops in that kitchen? And why isn’t his hard work acknowledged in the press or on the menu at all?”
The answer to your question Lani is that Gabe and everyone else in that kitchen has the chops. While I was never an employee Gabe did allow me to help out at his place sometimes. He was always there and always working. I’m not sure where you are getting your incredible disinformation unless it is another case of “gaijin shouldn’t be making Japanese food” which is of course, bullpucky and actually kinda racist.
Lani… your comments indicate an agenda. When did Gabe Rosen, who is an extremely kind person, not give credit to someone? Gabe himself is not only pretty talented and knowledgeable himself, he’s always giving credit to his kitchen staff, particularly his head cook whom he has often praised during our quite regular trips to Biwa. Gabe has been cooking around town for about ten years.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Lani, huh? Why don’t you tell us what you are vaguely alluding to. “People are wondering” Who’s wondering what? I’d sure love to know. What “reflects poorly on Gabe Rosen.” You aren’t making any sense to me. Can you be a bit more specific please.
Of course there are a lot of talented people working at Biwa both in the kitchen and FOH, if there are particular people that deserve a positive shout-out, by all means this is certainly the place. I was merely pointing out that Gabe is pretty passionate, knows his stuff, and is almost always there expediting (something that surely helps with quality. No dis on the other staff there, so don’t take it that way.
GAbe is a great and humble guy. He doesnt want or desire credit or fame. He just wants to do his “thing”. Believe it or not he was quite concerned when he first opened. His success is a little unexpected ( although ) well deserved.
Passion and desire will always beat out mechanical “souless” food. Cheers to Gabe.
I agree completely Amoureuse. And to add to what Pollo says, it’s not as if Gabe’s name has any level of celebrity. Those in the restaurant circles know him because he’s cooked a bunch of places, and Biwa has been a chef hangout since day one. But very few people recognize Gabe’s name, and I know he prefers it that way. He’s quite humble and to suggest otherwise is hurtful. It takes a lot to put a restaurant together, and owners do end up receiving a certain level of credit for their work whether they solicit attention or not. And they deserve credit. While great restaurants reflect good teamwork, it takes a significant amount of personal financial risk and time commitment to make a restaurant successful, and I imagine this is why the most chefs and restaurant owners are nearly always on-site at their respective restaurants.
Agree wholeheartedly with the last two posters. Gabe Rosen is a really great guy–don’t really know what Lani’s post was alluding to, it’s just, well, a little strange.
three cheers for Gabe!
Ate at Biwa for the first time recently, and I was … a little dispaointed. Don’t get me wrong, everything was good, but nothing jumped out at me as best in class. The ramen was good (and admittedly, among the best in PDX), the bibimbap was good, but better at 3-4 places in town, the gyoza were pretty good, and the miso is definitely the best I have had here, but overall I was left with the impression that the raves were more reflective of the lack of truly good Japanese in town than of the excellence of Biwa specfically. A recent trip to Vancouver reminds me of how good some of this food can and should be.
As I said, everything was good, I don’t have any real complaints (except price … had a little sticker shock for what we ordered) and we will probably be back to give them another try. Didn’t try any of the grilled meats as we were more interested in checking out the ramen. Maybe my impression will change when we have sampled those.
sugar snap says
just a head’s up letting you know that biwa is now open 7 days a week:
fri & sat: 5-11
ron cummings says
The restaurant BIWA, where my family and I had dinner last night, can only be described as awful. The croquettes were curry filled and no other flavor. The roasted garlic didn’t even taste like garlic, the bacon fried rice was greasy, the Ramen was like something I could get from Safeway, the seaweed salad was to close to the ocean, meaning it was kind of like a cup of ocean water, the kimchee medly was too spicy (and I love kimchee), and the KFC chicken lacked mostly chicken.
The service was great. I would rather eat at Mcburgerwendys. If you’re looking for Japanese food, look elsewhere, like the Takahashi on Holgate.
It’s too bad you had such a bad experience. In all fairness, though, I’m not sure the fact that the BACON FRIED rice was greasy should come as a big surprise. If it was really swimming in oil, sorry, that sucks.
Please don’t get me wrong — I love Korean food, but why do you advertise your restaurant as “Japanese”? Just wondering.
They’ve not only held up well since opening, they’ve improved and grown since first reviewed here over five years ago. I took a Japanese friend who’s a food writer and instructor in Japan, as well as a masterful cook in her own right. After sampling several dishes she closed her eyes, sighed and said simply “I remember Japan”.
Here’s an updated link to the only onigiri cartoon I know:
Food Dude says