Café Banzai might be ahead of its time. Not because of its mix of Korean and Japanese cuisines, its service and decor, or anything this new, Portland, Ore.-transported outfit is doing, but simply because of its location: next door to the Rocket Room on Pueblo Avenue.
Put simply, when you go to the Rocket Room and plenty of concertgoers and dive-bar-lovers do you're driving with purpose. You don't often meander in on a whim, after enjoying a stroll through industrial-feeling southwest downtown.
Opening a small, little-publicized eatery here, especially in an economy that's scaring off other new businesses, is a risk: Only time will determine whether Café Banzai scores a prescient victory or goes down as a poorly located casualty. Let's hope for the former, because it has plenty to offer via its good, cheap eats, constructed from scratch by owner/chef Kwi Kim.
Kim seems a sweet man, one with a penchant for bowing to you after every transaction, from course delivery to check settlement. It's totally disarming. When his daughter Christina is out on a delivery (near downtown only), Kim handles it all. Visible through drapes that separate the kitchen from the dining room, he works almost effortlessly, a product of his Korean culinary school degree and more than 30 years' experience.
On take-out lunch visits, I've passed up $5 daily specials like teriyaki wings to order $5.95 and $6.95 menu items like spicy chicken, tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets) and tofu teriyaki, and a $7.95 dish of vegetable yakisoba noodles. Each came with a tiny salad, a handful of stir-fried lo-mein noodles, a rice scoop and a gyoza piece (a ravioli-sized beef potsticker). For the price, it's a lot of food.
The chicken, served over shredded cabbage, brought light- and dark-meat hunks of various sizes in a red sauce that, for my taste, could have been much hotter to justify the menu warnings. The crispy tonkatsu benefited from a sweet vegetable-and-fruit sauce (found in ethnic markets under the name Bull-Dog) that makes all things shine. Likewise, the teriyaki sauce brought the deep-fried cubes of tofu to life, and a similar semi-sweet brown sauce energized the heaping yakisoba mound with bits of carrot and cabbage.
For a Saturday night dinner, we had the small, triangular space to ourselves. We sat at one of the few tables, sipping hot jasmine tea and complimentary miso soup under the bright fluorescents. First up was a parchment-lined basket of six panko-breaded, fried calamari ($6.95) with a simple but satisfying, tangy, mayonnaise-based dip, and six vegetable gyoza ($3.95) with tamari dip. Next came the serviceable oyako donburi ($8.95) of broiled chicken and scrambled egg bits over rice with a mild teriyaki, and the outstanding, go-for dish: L.A.-style (thin-sliced) beef short ribs ($12.95 dinner/$6.95 lunch).
Marinated at length in a homemade Korean barbecue sauce comprised in part of apple and pear pure, sesame oil, teriyaki sauce and sugar, the round, bone-dotted strips were tender and burst with flavor.
Maintaining stark simplicity, Café Banzai doesn't do desserts and offers only canned soda and juice selections. Be prepared for a short wait while Kim prepares your food fresh, and bow back if you're thankful for affordable Asian in this unlikely spot.