The door to Tanaka-san can be difficult to find. It’s along a relatively barren stretch of apartment building, down a ways from the building’s own main entrance. In the afternoons, the sun glinting off the shiny modern surfaces can glare up your vision. Such was the situation as I entered too quickly and, eyes adjusting to the interior light, nearly bowled over the broad gentlemen ahead of me. Eric Tanaka turned and glared at me for the briefest of moments, before smiling a broad toothy grin and saying “Whoa!” I had nearly run over the executive chef and namesake of Tom Douglas’ latest Seattle restaurant entry, Tanaka-san.
Tom Douglas has just wrapped up a culinary siege of the bottom floor of Via6 Apartments, conveniently where my girlfriend lives. The war machines of construction took up residence and erected a restaurant space quite unlike most everything else in the city. The main hallway seems to run right alongside some of the main food prep areas. The delineation between apartments, restaurant, and restaurant kitchen becomes increasingly unclear. Along with Tanakasan, there is a coffee shop, a tiny grocery store, and a few seemingly random spaces selling furniture, glassware, and assorted kitchen knick-knacks.
Tanaka-san is a breezy open-air space, where weathered wood surfaces meet high ceiling and exposed metal. Provided the weather is cooperative, the indoor section looks out through wide garage doors, across a small deck seating area, to an unobstructed view of South Lake Union and downtown skyscrapers. It’s a shame to think that all this is temporary. Soon enough the weather will demand the doors be closed. And when they open, the neighboring block will likely be filled in with Amazonian office buildings between Tanaka-san and that view. And just imagine the lunch crowd.
We visited just a few days after the official opening, and perhaps tensions were a bit high among the staff. I was carded immediately upon ordering a cocktail, a rarity at my ripe old age. Of course it was one of the few times I was without my ID. I pleaded for mercy, citing my weathered, leathery face, but to no avail. Instead of a delicious sake slushie or shochu cocktail, both of which come in several variations, I was left to try some of the non-alcoholic “refreshers.” The pepper soda – a tincture of long pepper, vanilla, and soda water – was like a Dr. Pepper sent to charm school. The sweet notes were longer and more drawn out, leading with vanilla and finishing with the bite of the pepper.
A plate of assorted chicken wings served as our main appetizer. Two wings showed up dressed up in their finest Korean garb, with ‘kimchee ketchup’ and smoked chilis. The other two were coated with garlicky salty caramel. Savory sweet combinations are always a dicey proposition outside of the McGriddle (right?), but Tanakasan reigned in the sugar tones and concentrated on the salty smokiness of caramel to deliver a great wing. My preference was still for the chili kimchee flavored variety, which had a bit more of a confident and bold flavor profile. Kimchee ketchup needs to be bottled and sold in stores and poured into my face.
Next up came a steaming bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Ramen and Seattle have a complicated relationship. Dozens of noodle shops around town can piece together a decent bowl, but very few are standouts. Can Tanaka-san rise above the rest? Well, yes and no. Tanaka-san’s ramen is very good, with delicate thin noodles, fat pieces of pork belly, and a beautiful soy-cured soft-boiled egg. The broth is more complex. It’s delicious and thick, but the pork flavor is so much more concentrated than what you expect. The liquid is dark and viscous and coats everything in the bowl like porky gravy. Yes, it’s delicious, but it’s tough to avoid that one flavor profile invading everything else in your mouth. Towards the end, I felt the need for another drink order to wash down the broth. It’s another solid entry in Seattle’s ramen scene, and does well to separate itself from the pack. But it’s not exactly what I crave when overflowing bowls of ramen stack up next to me in my dreams.Note: Since this review, Tankasan has changed their ramen to a more traditional shoyu-based broth. It’s quite good although they can’t resist trying to twist things up a bit. The addition of sliced apple on top is a divisive inclusion.
We returned the next day for brunch (Hey, it’s right downstairs!). Tanaka-San at brunch is a little more relaxed, a little more dim sum. Prices are in the $6-10 range, encouraging one to mix and match small plates. Dumplings came in both pork and lamb flavors – the lamb featuring a sharp taste of cardamom cutting through the dough and meat. Hardly traditional, but pretty damn tasty. There was a miss here and there too. A smoked sweet potato came out a bit underseasoned and undercooked. Citrus-cured salmon sounded (and looked) brilliant, but ended up a touch sour and rubbery.
The real brunch standout is the Tanakasan family fried rice. Essentially what this dish is is rice, chunky bacon and pork pieces, and ketchup all fried up into one massive mound of oily deliciousness. Trying to eat it with chopsticks is an exercise in futility and madness. A fork is recommended for transporting maximum globs of sticky deliciousness to your waiting mouth.
Tanakasan brings Asian flair to downtown Seattle with a healthy side dose of quirk. We may have conceded the ground floor of Via6 to culinary sprawl, but at least we have tasty treats in recompense. Just be careful on your way in – you may run right over the proprieter.
Link to the full Flickr set of my Tanakasan visit.