I eat at Izakaya Minato on Washington Avenue on snowy February Tuesdays or torrential March Wednesdays as often as I can. Make that “ate.” Thirty years ago, I lived in Japan and the restaurant’s food is, for me, “natsukashi,” which means nostalgic in Japanese, but less treacly. Also, the food is wonderful.

The sake lees-marinated black cod bento box at Izakaya Minato. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

In a previous world, a prepandemic world, Izakaya Minato would not take reservations (except for large groups), and more than once when I stopped by for dinner in the summertime, I was unceremoniously told the wait would be 1 1/2 hours. I did not wait.

So it was with a guilty joy that I got online recently and ordered and paid for curbside pickup bento boxes for the exact evening and the exact minute that I wanted to eat, a service the restaurant has branded Minato Express Japanese Kitchen. There was no wait when my partner and I arrived, either, no hordes of tourists nor knowledgeable Portland foodies crowding us out. I simply phoned the restaurant to say I’d arrived, and less than a minute later, a masked woman stepped outside to hand us a Minato-stamped brown paper bag with a Japanese fried chicken bento ($13), a sake lees-marinated black cod bento ($14), two orders of ice cream ($9 each) and two pairs of disposable chopsticks.

Dear Dairy Brown Butter Caramel ice cream at Izakaya Minato. Wow. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

About that ice cream, because between the pandemic and the recession, I say eat dessert first. In normal times, Alec Haviland who makes Dear Dairy ice cream, also works as a waiter at Izakaya Minato. The chocolate flavor struck me as boring – I’m sure I was wrong – so we’d ordered two helpings of Brown Butter Caramel instead. I was wrong about the two helpings, too. The cartons were 12 ounces each and were – or should have been – perfect for sharing. Food secured, we walked to nearby Fort Sumner Park for a picnic dinner. Heads up: The ice cream is not packaged to stay cold. After insisting to my picnic-mate that I couldn’t possibly eat 12 ounces myself – me? no, never – I did. It was at once sweet and savory, creamy and chewy, outrageously good.

In addition to the main event, each bento box comes with a heaping mound of sticky white rice, a few buttercup-yellow daikon pickles, two bite-sized pieces of Japanese sweet rolled omelet, a paper condiment cup of Japanese potato salad and edamame (which could have used a vigorous shake of salt). The fried chicken also came with raw shaved cabbage and silken, sesame-tinged, spicy mayonnaise sauce for dipping (I could have eaten it with a spoon). The petite piece of cod was moist and delicately flavored. The chicken, boned and cut in small pieces, was moist too, but with bigger, louder flavors; while Joe watched the sunset, I stole several bites.

Bento boxes were designed for takeout – the Japanese bring them to school, to work, to kabuki performances, to spring picnics under blossoming cherry trees and on long-distance train rides. In addition to bento, Izakaya Express was offering udon with fiddlehead tempura ($11), sashimi (six pieces for $15), fried pork cutlet with Japanese curry ($13) and more, though a Facebook post indicated that there may be menu changes this week. Next time I go, if it’s still there, I won’t try to resist the $2 “Jello shot!” The menu describes it this way: “Salt plum-infused tequila, honey, lime. We are living in strange times right now, might as well have a jello shot.”


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