|Chef Naoko Brief Review|
|Overall||Service||Food Quality||Atmosphere||Vegan Options|
|Location: 1237 SW Jefferson St Portland, OR 97201|
|Hours: Tues-Sat 11:30am-3pm||Times Visited: 4|
Trying to break my wonderful food cart habit, I headed to Taste of Jakarta for a second visit one day. They were temporarily closed, so I popped into Chef Naoko next door for a casual sit down meal. This lunch spot had been slipping my mind for some time – the pull of trying every single vegan friendly food cart is fierce.
Chef Naoko is a lunch time, bento based café with limited hours and two fresh vegan meals for your consideration. Chef Naoko sources locally with Ota Tofu and keeps with the beautiful tradition of using local, organic produce in their authentic Japanese cooking. The proprietor, Naoko Tamura, was raised by one of Japan’s leaders in their organic food movement, and has a strong history with the organic culinary field.
The café itself is a small, popular establishment with a crowd different than most of hustle and bustle I’m accustomed to downtown. It’s a mix of business folks, student types, and leisurely lunchers. Getting a table can be a matter of luck. There are a handful of tables for two, including high tables, a couple for four, and weather permitting, two more tiny outdoor round tables. The outdoor tables are of the tiny metal variety that I never feel comfortable at, so if I’m looking to dine outdoors I head to the South Park Blocks. It’s nearly a nook of an eatery, so if you veer towards claustrophobia, I’d recommend taking your meal to go. I’d be comfortable lunching with a friend, but skip it as a business lunch spot or place to dwell alone over rice and barley tea.
All staff members at Chef Naoko I’ve spoken with have been very knowledgeable in regards to their menu and vegan options. It was confirmed via email prior to my first visit that there are two clearly vegan options: the Farmers Veggie Bento ($9) and the Jefferson Tofu Bowl ($6.75). There is always an option for tofu on the weekly Business Bento selection, and a couple other items can be modified.
There’s a certain delight that comes with being served a bento box, and there are curious elements in the Farmers Veggie Bento, but the most enticing elements are those that also make up the Jefferson Tofu Bowl. It’s the lengthy pieces of fried tofu, vegetables, and steamed rice with house tomato sauce or teriyaki sauce that bring me back to Chef Naoko. The box is made up of segmented departments, which includes the veggies and rice, a cold, slightly grilled, adorable cube of tofu with dollop of sauce, a salad topped with hijiki, and ginger dressings, and a side of chilled eggplant. The delicate texture of the cooked eggplant is intriguing at best.
For less money, I say skip the presentable box and go for the Jefferson Tofu Bowl. If you order it to go, it’s served in a large, reusable bowl with a lid. It’s a simple combination of moist brown rice, topped with sautéed cabbage, green pepper, thinly sliced carrots, onions, tofu, a light and sweet teriyaki sauce, and sesame seeds. The spongy tofu is cut into large squares, which I like to tear into small pieces and savor mixed with the sweet sauce. I assume it’s spent some time in the freezer, if you know what I mean. And I don’t know how they do it, but their sauces to veggies to rice ratio is right on. Whatever their measuring system is – stay in place! Note that I have not seen any hot sauces available, and there is no heat to the sauce. If you require Sriracha, you’re out of luck. Enjoy the flavor of the well cooked vegetables.
With their speedy service, satisfying food, and weekly Business Bento offerings, Chef Naoko seems to be a staple for takeout lunch in the Safeway neighborhood. My takeout orders have assembled within minutes of ordering. Ironically, when I’ve dined-in my wait has been noticeably longer, but we’re still talking within 10-12 minutes of sitting down. Nearby PSU students should take note, I rarely such satisfying quick lunches in college.
Look at this, a Stumptown Vegan recommending yet another bowl meal in Portland.
FYI, The staff at Chef Naoko does not accept tips. Not being able to tip just makes me want to return for another meal sooner.
Farmers Veggie Bento