First Look: TanakaSan Tackles Contemporary American Asian Food in Seattle

tanakasan-wings3-600-5735TanakaSan. The name pays tribute to owner Tom Douglas’ faithful sidekick through innumerable restaurant openings and culinary projects: executive chef Eric Tanaka. The menu pays tribute to Tanaka’s background as a Japanese-American who grew up in Los Angeles eating a diversity of food. Tanaka says that the food is contemporary American Asian, cutting across cuisines and pleasing personal cravings more than playing toward authenticity.

TanakaSan is part of Tom Douglas’ vast new Assembly Hall complex, which at 10,000 square feet also includes Assembly Coffee and Juice bar, Home Remedy grab-and-go (deli, pizza, burritos, and more), flower shop, gift shop, and more. TanakaSan itself is big, with 60 seats outdoors (warmed by heat lamps) and 80 indoors (with potential for more)—including prized counter seating for those who want to watch the kitchen action.

The menu trends Japanese and Chinese, with offerings including okonomiyaki (a savory pancake) to two types of ramen, a Dungeness crab foo young, and two types of dumplings. There’s also Tanaka Family Fried Rice, featuring smoked bacon, crispy shallot, and a fried egg, which really brings the cooking home for Tanaka and his dining guests. And if L.A. has Genghis Cohen restaurant, Seattle’s gets Miso-Dashi with Matzo Balls. (Lunch and brunch feature dim sum-like small plates suitable for sharing.)

Desserts include brown rice matcha macaroons, coconut-cinnamon shaved ice, and Vietnamese coffee-chocolate layer cake. And don’t overlook the drink menu. There’s a selection of local and Asian beer, sh?ch? (a Japanese distilled beverage), Asian-influenced cocktails, sake slushies, and more.

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The Osaka Pancake ($13) is TanakaSan’s version of okonomiyaki, studded with bacon and shrimp. The pancake is topped with green onions, mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, and the tell-tale dancing bonito—shaved fish flakes which flutter from the heat.

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A plate of Nuka Pickles ($5) contains vegetables which have been fermented in rice bran (nuka). This serving includes daikon radish, cucumbers, and kohlrabi, with a kimchi dip topped with fried shallots.

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Housemade Soft Tofu Custard is TanakaSan’s version of hiyayakko, which is chilled tofu with toppings. The basic version ($8) comes with soy sauce, green onions, and a ginger tuile for texture and flavor, but more luxe toppings include shaved bonito and salmon roe ($12).

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There are two ways to order Twice Fried Chicken Wings ($12): one with smoked chili and kimchi ketchup, the other (pictured) is with salty caramel, serranos, and garlic.

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Chili Char Squid ($13) offers both body and tentacles with a fragrant herb “salad.” Slices of jicama provide crunch, and it’s served with a fish sauce and lime dressing.

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TanakaSan’s head chef, Bryan Walczyk, was previously at Brave Horse Tavern, where he prepared Wisconsin-esque snacks like pretzels and brats. The Smoked Duck Sausage ($12) is a natural extension of his experience. In contrast to the popular Momofuku buns, these have duck sausage with green garlic and pickled daikon, though there’s still a smear of hoisin sauce. Seeds on the “poppy pinch buns” are the finishing touch.

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Ramen finally comes to downtown Seattle at TanakaSan, with two versions available. Pictured is Tonkotsu Ramen ($13), with a pork bone broth, thick slices of braised pork belly, and a brined soft egg. There are also pickled mushrooms, green onions, and an “umami bomb” of dried mushrooms, parmesan rind, kombu (kelp), and duck fat on top. Whole wheat for the straight noodles is an unconventional choice. Soft and almost soba-like, these noodles will likely generate controversy, so it will be interesting to see if TanakaSan sticks with them as the ramen evolves. (The Shoyu Ramen, $11, comes with wavy noodles made from regular flour.)

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Drinks include the Citrus Kit ($12) from the Ch?hai section of the menu. This interactive cocktail offers soju (the Korean version of sh?ch?), yuzu mizu (aromatic Japanese citrus “water”) soda, lime and orange wedges, and a shiso leaf to let diners play bartender at their table.

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Eric Tanaka, in green, at the kitchen. The counter seats are well-positioned to catch the cooking action.

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Godzilla keeps an eye on the condiments at the tables.

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Part of the bar area features a machine to make sake slushies.

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Outdoor seating under the squid sign that welcomes you to TanakaSan.

(Originally published here at Serious Eats on June 18. First Looks are non-critical reports. Note that First Looks do not evaluate the quality of the food, but just give an initial glimpse.)

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