What is it about other countries junk food, fast food, and restaurant chains? Dining in the Great Republic, I want my burgers bespoke, my tortillas made on premises, my fries hand cut (preferably right in front of me), and I never, ever eat breakfast at Denny’s. And yet I will crawl over broken glass for a spleen sandwich in Palermo, dine decadently with the routiers in France (where every long-haul truck driver is legally entitled to a half liter of wine at lunch), and happily pass up a gourmet temple for a stand-up lunch of brats n’ beer at a Vincenz Murr location in Germany.
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But in Gastropolis Portlandia Team Mago gets to have its foreign chains and eat at them too. Willamette Week’s Matthew Korfhage calls Shigezo, and its sister izakaya Yataimura Maru, “Japan’s Applebee’s.” MagoGuide finds this double possessive both statistically and culinarily sloppy. First off, there are way more Applebee’s than Shigezos when you normalize across the populations of both countries. Secondly, Applebee’s food and booze are a bunch of corporate crap (not to put too fine a point on it). A much better fit on both fronts would be BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery, a regional franchised gastropub (although you could well asphyxiate if you hold your breath in anticipation of a MagoGuide review of BJ’s this side of the apocalypse).
A related issue is what is a realistic translation for izakaya? The terms, bistro, diner, tavern, drinking establishment, tapas bar, and all variants of pub have been used (to include Irish pub, based evidently on Bobby Kennedy’s evening out in Tokyo some 54 years ago). Team Mago is partial to the colloquial term akachōchin, even though the red lanterns at Shigezo are found inside and only a single white lantern beckons clients from the exterior. This seems strange since white is a color usually given to negative connotations in the orient—but then again I cannot translate the lantern’s red Hiragana characters. So let’s do it this way: the first reader to send such a translation to the MagoGuide website will win perpetual naming privileges for izakayas the world over.
So before I succumb to the temptation of asking folks to speculate on the expansion of the acronym BJ for the American izakaya chain doppelganger damned by faint praise above, let’s talk about the food at Shigezo. First off, unlike a traditional sake shop selling nibbles alongside rice wine, Shigezo offers cuisine from several Japanese culinary disciplines that are often found in single purpose establishments in both countries: sushi/sashimi, ramen/other noodles, robatayaki, teppanyaki, and tapas, which in this case must mean “none of the above” in Japanese.
Crowd-sourced digital media is generally positive toward Shigezo, but perhaps the Shinto goddess of the kitchen range, Hettsui-No-Kami, is death on digital oni. The food complaints all fall into one basic category: Shigezo does not serve the best sushi, ramen, etc. in Portland. And that is correct as far as it goes, but that’s just not very far. What you do get at Shigezo is some very good multi-disciplinary Japanese cuisine all under one roof at extremely reasonable prices.
So far Team Mago is most taken with the stuff on sticks of which there are seven protein and five veggie skewers. Despite being a dedicated carnivore, I must say that the vegetable skewers have been the real gems. The eringi mushrooms are spectacular, easily eclipsing the shitake that sell for the same price. The okra, grilled with a simple dusting of salt and pepper were a revelation as well as the best preparation of the much maligned abelmoschus esculentus I have ever eaten (that spinning sensation is probably emanating from my dear departed grandmother’s grave in Amarillo). The shishito peppers and even the humble zucchini are also quite good.
Of the protein skewers, the pork belly, surprisingly, was one of the weakest—cut too thin and grilled too long until it was slightly rubbery. But the pig cheeks ruled and the yakitori chicken breasts and thighs were sturdy exemplars of this style of grilling when done right–juicy, savory, and salty.
As for the sushi, well it’s a heck of a lot better than what you find in toy boats making an endless loop through a sea of culinary despair, not to mention the stiff and bloated rice logs that grace the typical “all you can eat” Asian buffet. It’s true that you will find better and more artfully crafted sushi elsewhere in Portland, but only for a lot more money. For example, compare Shigezo’s omakaze (chef’s choice) offerings that top out at $18.50 with Bamboo Sushi (Bamboo Sushi: Excellent Sustainable Seafood meets Marginal Happy Hour) or Hokusei, which are easily double or triple that price, not to mention Yama or Nodoguro where omakaze are easily an order of magnitude greater in cost.
For establishments in Shigezo’s dining niche, the food must be examined at the intersection of quality and value. Like Shigezo’s sushi, there are better noodles to be had in Portland, but are there better to be had along with quite decent sushi, many different grilled variations, and some twenty drinkie snacks? Indeed, Team Mago rated the Shio Abu Ramen (fried tofu, kimpira gobo, green onion, and bean sprouts tossed in a chili oil sauce topped with shiodare sauce) a solid A-. The fish and seafood nigiri, rolls, and sashimi we sampled over several visits was always fresh and competently prepared; and in addition to saving money you also avoid a great deal of carbon guilt by eating local, because high-end sushi frequently involves flying product in from Japan and elsewhere.
In fact, once you taste the grilled salmon belly (at an amazing happy hour price of $4) you might find it hard to go back to your favorite $100 per capita (sans sake pairing) bill at your favorite “authentic” Japanese eatery.
The other sin listed on digital culinary platforms involves service at Shigezo. Evidently, some people are incensed about a wait staff that does not emulate the hyper-Taylorist “turn a table in twenty minutes” frenzy of a typical US chain restaurant. Also, it seems that serving everybody at a table at the same time is the sine quo non of service, especially for those with plans to attend the nearby Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The digital chorus of disdain is such that every server at Shigezo is now compelled to deliver an expectations management litany involving an admonition that dishes are served when ready, in no particular order, and that both the grill station and the sushi bar can get backed up during times of high occupancy (like an hour or so prior to performances at nearby venues).
Team Mago has only experienced very good service at Shigezo. There was no significant wait time for food and the staff proved unfailingly polite and helpful. The only problem we encountered was a dish of slightly over-cooked eringi, which was replaced by correctly grilled mushrooms in less than fifteen minutes with absolutely no resistance on the house’s part.
Several long sojourns in London taught Team Mago long ago that pre-theater dining is an art rather than a science and usually mastered only by a subset of the available restaurant pool. It does not take transcending genius to determine rather quickly that the laid-back conviviality that is the signature of izakayas regardless of location is suited primarily for après-theater consumption. Try some place like the Ringside Fish House with a dedicated pre-theater menu and staff trained in this demanding niche, rather than driving a round temporal peg into a square sake masu. Then unwind at Shigezo after the show.
Mago Tip: Take advantage of Shigezo’s super VFM happy hour. Prices are essentially halved while the selection of food on offer remains impressive. Of equal importance, with early and late happy hours on Friday and Saturday and all of Sunday dedicated to reduced prices, there are almost twice as many happy hours as regular hours per week at Shigezo. The $15 appetizer or noodle specials are great deals. And those $5 twenty-two fluid ounce draft brewskies can sneak up on you, but somehow I think that is the point of an izakaya.