Perhaps it was the little gold-necklace-draped Godzillas on each table, or the TV screens embedded in the mirrors of the restrooms, or the leggy, long-haired blonde walking a pink-outfitted pooch through the Via 6 lobby. Something about TanakaSan makes me think: Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Seattle anymore.
There is an L.A. vibe about this lively addition to the Tom Douglas Restaurants family, and it is no accident. The restaurant’s namesake is the company’s executive chef and partner, Eric Tanaka, and the menu is an exuberant cross-cultural riff on the kinds of food he loved growing up in Los Angeles — old hunger re-imagined with the rigor you’d expect from a James Beard Award-winning chef.
The concept embraces ramen and fried rice, hot wings and a wedge salad. It includes mashups like Dungeness crab foo young, a winning Pacific Northwest twist on the classic Chinese omelet; delicate shrimp lumpia; and adorable smoked-duck sausages cradled in poppy-crusted Chinese buns with pickled cucumber and radish. Pastrami kalbi short ribs — bony morsels crusty with pepper, slick with chili oil — really do taste like pastrami.
Pan-Asian flavors prevail. Chilled whole-wheat noodles, punctuated with edamame and cucumber, bask in a smoky, barley-tea dashi broth. Baby beets nest in a fluff of coconut milk, lime and Thai basil. Lime, chilies and numerous fresh herbs buoy tender bites of charred squid, served chilled.
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Blistered shishito peppers sprinkled with crisp puffed rice and dried seaweed sprawl across cream cheese whipped with lime. Another whip — of ginger and tofu — accents slices of citrus-cured salmon, with cilantro and orange segments tucked among its briny coral folds. Shoyu-moistened, fresh-picked green beans anchor a stunning ensemble of radish, walnuts, half a pickled egg and cured anchovies.
You’ll find many of those little plates on the lunch menu. Called “dim sum,” they range in price from $5 to $7. Be warned, they are minuscule: Splitting one more than two ways is hard.
Our group bulked out several dim sum with one of the substantial breakfast plates — wonderful curried potato hash with yogurt-creamed spinach and a fluffy baked egg rimmed in orange masala — plus dessert. No one felt deprived after demolishing two generous wedges of layer cake — one peach with caramel frosting, the other chocolate iced with espresso mousse.
Larger versions of the dim sum (and more) are on the dinner menu. They are roughly twice the price and more easily divisible by three or four people. Still, you may want to order several “firsts” before moving on to “seconds.”
Dishes tend to arrive when they are ready. When our waiter thoughtfully staged our dinner in two parts, the small plates arrived in quick succession; the rice and larger plates showed up much, much later. We didn’t really mind the delay. We sipped sake, taking in the cosmopolitan scene.
TanakaSan is the centerpiece of Tom Douglas’ new Assembly Hall complex. It includes a juice and coffee bar; a flower shop; and Home Remedy, a specialty market and takeout shop. The bar and dining room are at opposite ends of a sweeping bi-level expanse. Large windows unfold to a heated patio where Douglas relaxed at a sidewalk table. Tanaka roamed between the dining room and the visible, but secluded, kitchen, where a team of sous chefs toil. (Sit at the kitchen counter to catch the action.)
The bacon-riddled “Tanaka family fried rice” topped with a fried egg was worth the wait. So was nearly butter-tender pork shoulder cooked in a banana leaf and finished with fish sauce and lime juice. Thick slabs of rare, salt-and-pepper-crusted ahi, propped up by noodle-like strands of summer squash, were another delight. Both sported an invigorating tangle of fresh herbs and aromatics: basil, chilies, chives and mint for the meat; cilantro, daikon sprouts, shiso, mint, ginger, shallots and pickled chilies for the fish.
My Norwalk cocktail lacked the same pizazz; pineapple juice trounced both the rum and basil. I much preferred the spritzy yuzu mizu: a sweet-tart, shiso-edged nonalcoholic soda. But really, sake or beer is what you want to drink with this food. A carafe of Oregon-made Momokawa sake is just $8, and the half Asian, half American beer list mirrors the spirit of TanakaSan.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.