Social Encore: Keeping it ‘Pono’ in Oregon
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
When it comes to Oregon, there is a high chance that you’ll find people from Hawaii, people who have visited Hawaii or people who love Hawaii because of Marcus Mariota. Finding food that truly reminds me of home in Oregon was impossible until I stumbled on a restaurant called Pono Farm Soul Kitchen in Portland.
The history behind the restaurant is as rich as the food they serve. It all started when Ted Nakato and his family moved from Japan to Atlanta in 1971. His grandmother, Tetsuko, was involved in the restaurant business in Japan and wanted to share the Japanese cuisine she knew. With a dream to open a Japanese restaurant, Ted’s father, Kenzo, and aunt, Hiroe, decided to fulfill their mother’s dream and opened up Nakato Restaurant in Atlanta in 1972.
From there the Nakato family slowly opened Japanese restaurants across the United States. In 1976 they opened Nakato Japanese Restaurant in North Carolina, followed by a South Carolina location in 1981 and another location in Missouri in 1995. Inspired to introduce Japanese food to America, the family started with teppanyaki, then sushi and later introduced other traditional washoku items. Today the Nakato family restaurants are known to be the oldest operating Japanese restaurants in each respective market.
Ted Nakato and his brothers were fortunate to see many embrace Japanese food over the years. Authenticity and hard work are reasons the family’s restaurants have remained successful. The Nakato brothers wanted to keep the tradition of serving honest food alive when they ventured into farming.
“Our family was always willing to take risks in trying something new and that has carried over to the Pono Farm project,” said Ted Nakato.
A third generation restaurant owner, Shin Nakato said passion for fine food runs in his family’s veins. Not thrilled with the way corporate culture negatively impacts food quality and nutritional value, the Nakato brothers wanted to vertically integrate how things were done by growing food in a traditional way.
“We felt that ingredients were losing their quality and integrity over the decades that we have been involved in the restaurant business,” said Ted Nakata. “This decline in quality is driven by the notion of cutting costs … brought by corporate culture,
“We started the farm because we wanted to try something new and wanted to have control of the quality of meat that was being served.”
The Nakato brothers started their cattle operation, Pono Farms, in 2000 on 20 acres of land with 10 cows and one full blooded Wagyu bull, Kobayashi, who has some of the best meat quality genetics released to the U.S. from Japan. Later in 2007, two purebred Berkshire hogs (one boar and one sow) joined Kobayashi on the farm and slowly the brothers grew their herd. Today there are about 330 head of cattle, 300 hogs and about 150 chickens that roam freely on their farm.
The hard work and long hours producing quality meat is what the brothers aim to produce everyday. In addition to being able to roam freely, all the animals on the farm are raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones or steroids and are fed a premium and abundant diet of grass and hay.
The two understand that the process takes them longer but the nutritional qualities to savor the meat makes all the difference. A dedicated team helps with the meat process from the farm in Culver, Ore. to the butcher shop in Bend, Ore. called, Pono Farm & Fine Meats. At the butcher shop the meat is aged, cured and smoked. Tasting each carcass for grade and quality assurance is a religious routine. Shin said by tasting the meat it allows the shop to document their herd in order to build the next generation of animals.
“This process is not very high tech and is very old school but seems to work for us,” said Shin Nakato. “There are very few teams like ours, that is what makes us different. It is the farming lifestyle and our loyal patrons that understand food quality inspires us daily. It makes all the hot, sweltering summer days and the cold frigid winters of blood, sweat and tears all worthwhile.”
The Nakatos hold Hawaii close to their heart with fond memories of frequent family vacations. Hawaii always seemed to be the meeting place where the extended Nakato clan could get together and where one Nakato brother eventually called home. Ted said Hawaii’s laid back lifestyle and presence of mixed cultures has always made his family feel comfortable.
During a trip to Hawaii in 2008, both brothers went fishing. While waiting for a fish to bite, a conversation around the definition of the word “pono” came about.
“To me it is a word that cannot be translated directly to English; you have to explain the meaning of the word in Hawaiian culture,” said Ted. “That conversation always stuck in our minds. When it was time to come up with a name for our butcher shop, we felt “Pono” best described what we were trying to accomplish with the farm to table project.”
In 2011, Pono Farm & Fine Meats opened its doors to the public with a promise to raise and serve meat in a fair, natural and sustainable way. The company’s philosophy has always been to only produce enough animals to supply their store and restaurant by using the entire animal carcass. For example they use the leftover bones to produce stock, fat to render oil, and offal to make raw dog food.
The Nakato brothers started selling their meat at local farmers markets. Wanting to integrate the farm into the restaurant business, the brothers opened up Pono Soul Kitchen last year. With Pono Soul Kitchen, the true essence of farm to table is showcased in Japanese inspired dishes that bring back childhood nostalgia of home cooked comfort food.
Pono Soul Kitchen head chef Ric Ramos started his training while working for his father’s catering company at the age of 12. He graduated from Ozarks Technical Community College in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. Ramos’ father worked at the Nakato Restaurant in Missouri as a sushi chef. Learning under his father and head chef, Yataka Oshita, he eventually traveled to New York to hone his own cooking skills. He worked as a sous chef at the prestigious Bouley restaurant where having respect for ingredients and keeping it’s integrity and purity is essential to blending flavors harmoniously.
When the brothers were thinking of a head chef that understood the family business, they brought Ramos on board.
“I am very fortunate to have this position and to be able to work with dedicated and passionate individuals,” said Ramos. “The restaurant is my second home and everyone here is like a family to me.”
The meat and ingredients that are available during the season inspire the restaurants daily menu. Often ripe goods that have been traded from other farmers and fish that arrive straight from of Oahu’s fish market are additional ingredients that help culminate crowd favorites.
“Most of the time, dishes are created spontaneously,” said Ramos. “I don’t believe in recipes. Inspiration can come from tapping into a past flavor memory, it can be a co-worker’s suggestion, or simply trying to make the dishes better.”
As soon as I walked into the open spaced restaurant, the smell of slow cooked pork, fresh fish from the Pacific, kalbi ribs, tonkatsu, and gyudon made my soul feel at home. To get my Hawaii fix here in the Pacific Northwest, I decided to let my palate run wild. Here’s what I ate:
» NY Strip Carpaccio ($12): The finely thin strips of Carpaccio are soaking in the ponzu sauce, dressed with ginger scallion chimichurri, Asian pear and seared with hot oil. The light earthly flavors kicked my Pono Soul Kitchen food journey off to a great start.
» Cold Sesame Noodles ($12): A colorful bowl of dashi tamago, ripe cherry tomatoes, fava beans, scallions, and cucumbers are given the right amount of chili-gomae dressing that make the dish refreshing yet bold.
» Oka King Salmon($12): Coming from Hawaii, I had to taste some fresh catch of sashimi. No lie, I closed my eyes when I took my first bite. Flavors were sharp with a smooth finish.
» Dugeness crab chawan mushi ($14): a warm bowl of crab comfort that is mixed with corn, peas, dashi-soy, and monk fish custard. Just from the description you would think that it would be too fishy or heavy but surprisingly the combination of ingredients blended seemlessly. You know that warm and satisfying feeling when you eat a bowl of soup on a cold night? Yeah, this bowl gives you that feeling.
» Chuck Steak: Some of the best steak that I’ve ever had in Portland. The meat was tender, moist and lightly seasoned with sea salt. It made me wonder, “if the chuck steak tastes this good, I wonder how their dry-aged 75% wagyu steak tastes?”
» Japanese bread pudding ($9): A dab that satisfied my sweet tooth. The sweet crispy golden outside and yet soft center bread sits on a soft and creamy Yuzu Crème Anglaise and is plated with sweet and plup seasonal fruit and candied walnuts. This dessert truly melts in your mouth.
From the open fielded farm to chefs stirring flavors to life, it was undeniable that Pono Farms and Pono Soul Kitchen showed me a whole new meaning of farm to table. With the family foundation, genuine approach to raising animals and food, the word Pono means more than a word added to restaurant name from a Hawaii fishing trip. It’s their way of life and everything they stand for.
“I hope our customers get a better understanding of the story behind what went into producing the plate,” said Ramos. “It is a cumulative effort of hard work, heart, and soul from individuals from the farm, the butcher shop and the restaurant. Seeing customers’ positive reactions make us feel that we have done our job — to make them happy.”
“The people that support local businesses like ours are the heart and soul of the operation. We can not exist without them,” said Shin Nakato. “We are thankful that people are starting to understand and value the local farmers who work hard to grow and raise the food that is served.”
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.