A BOWL FULL OF FLAVOR The kimchi and tofu stew at Happy Teriyaki.
Koreans can be a hard people. Squeezed between a hegemonic China and an eternally aggressive Japan, Korea has for millennia been the stomping ground of foreign armies and provided the labor for foreign consumption. The result is a culture that has turned the nursing of resentments into an artform. The Korean language, when spoken, can sound guttural and angry. The greatest Korean films, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance for example, depict lifelong grudges and the bitter ecstasy of revenge. This hardness has produced a distinctive cuisine, filled with chewy grilled meats and sour vegetables.
But there is little that is hard about Happy Teriyaki, which is Korean-owned despite the Japanese name and the Japanese-style cute bear logo in the window. That Japanese aesthetic, and the pan-Asian menu, are the first indications that this is a more open and forgiving sort of Korean place. And while you will do best by sticking to the Korean side of the menu, it is worth attending to what is soft and gentle at Happy Teriyaki.
The placid mood is set by the proprietor. He cares enough about music to spin his own vinyl on an old wood-cased Emerson turntable. It produces a distinctively warm sound and looks lovely surrounded by a chaotic pile of old albums, heavy on Motown and '70s funk. With his fu-manchu, knit cap, and laidback style, he seemed a bit like a Korean Carlos Santana, and confirmed that he used to be a musician. Traditional drums and other instruments hang on the walls, and he yanked one down to offer a quick lesson to some customers.
At Happy Teriyaki they are so laid-back you can bring your our own wine or beer. We set it aside for a bit to enjoy the distinctive corn tea that begins the meal. Its light-roasted flavor was soothing, as was our appetizer of soft egg pancake spotted with squid, octopus, and big green pieces of scallion. Even the kimchi was mild — bright red, but not too spicy, salty, or sour. The other panchan (small plates served with the Korean meals) featured crunchy slices of seasoned lotus root, a cool fermented fish cake, and potato in a dense and sweet brown sauce.
The softest, warmest dish among the entrees is also the best. A kimchi and tofu stew arrives bright red and sizzling with a just-cracked egg floating on the surface. The spice offers enough heat to raise your blood without shocking your palate. As the creamy yolk spills in to the broth and mixes with the yogurty-soft tofu, you get three distinct but soothing textures in a spoonful. It's a great dish.
At Happy Teriyaki even the grilled meat avoids the typical Korean toughness. A huge pile of beef is sliced so thin you barely need to chew it. The marinade gives it a vinegary sweetness that obscures any smoky flavor imparted by the grill. The tender spicy pork comes in a similar pile on top of a bed of grilled onions. It was coated in a thick, creamy red sauce that was less spicy than it looked.
A very traditional Bi Bim Bop arrived vibrantly colored and sizzling in a stone bowl. It is lovely to watch the red sauce mix with the yellow yolk, dark mushrooms, white rice, orange carrot, and bright green seaweed as your work your way down into the bowl toward the crispy rice — burned by the hot stone — at the bottom.
Like Korea itself, Happy Teriyaki has challenges to overcome. The name is misleading. They are burdened by the thin carpet and hulking beverage cooler that plague so many Asian restaurants here in Portland. The Chinese section of the menu, if the Mongolian shrimp is an indication, is not particularly strong. But its other strengths make it worth visiting. Everything seems more pleasant as the warm sounds of the Emerson mingle with the gentle aromas of your entrees. Happy Teriyaki, by making their Korean food so soothing and irresistible that the Japanese and Chinese an afterthought, might just get the best revenge of all.
Brian Duff can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
HAPPY TERIYAKI, 630 Congress St, Portland | Mon-Sat 10:30-2 pm, 4:30-9 pm | Visa/MC/Disc/Amex | 207.771.2000