3-Question Interview with Jenny Nickolaus and Chris Whaley of The American Local
Working on an article on Portland izakaya, I received an awesome perspective on The American Local's version of Americanized izakaya. Below, owners Jenny Nickolaus and Chris Whaley discuss the philosophy behind The American Local:
How would you describe The American Local's style of izakaya (in particular, I'm wondering how you translated the concept of traditional izakaya dishes to American dishes)?
We feel that most Americans enjoy eating and sharing with their friends and family. If you think about how we serve our family meals at home, most of us cook several dishes (protein, vegetables, starch) and put them in the middle of the table for everybody to help themselves, while we eat, drink and catch up with each other. We just wanted to bring that to life in a restaurant setting and izakaya seemed like the natural way promote that familial/communal vibe.
Additionally, we have always appreciated the Japanese sensibilities towards food and service, so we did what every red blooded American does - we took an idea we liked from another culture's playbook and commandeered it to fit us. Just as American culture is a melting pot of all of the other cultures that live here, we think of American cuisine in the same way. We don't think American food is just hamburgers, BBQ and fried chicken. It now includes burritos, lasagna and sushi (just to name a few) and because we bill ourselves as an "American Izakaya", we play fast and loose with the "traditional" izakaya dishes.
We serve raw fish dishes, but make them more in the style of an Italian crudo than a Japanese sashimi. We serve skewers, and they run the gamut from fairly traditional Japanese skewers like tsukune (chicken meatball skewer) to completely un-traditional (pork belly skewer with maple and sriracha) and a lot that is in between (fusion-y for lack of a better descriptor).
What are two or three dishes that really embody the drinking-food concept and why?
I almost always think of things you can eat with your hands when I think of drinking food, so my go-to dishes are: Crispy grit cakes with salmon tartar and creme fraiche and our fried chicken. The grit cakes are the perfect drinking food starter, the flavors are familiar (think lox, cream cheese and bagels), but done in a way that is just plain fun to eat. And, importantly, you can eat it while drinking beer, wine, whiskey or sake and it will be appropriate with them all.
Fried chicken is something that you find in a lot of different cultures, and it's extremely satisfying with an ice cold beer no matter where you're from. Ours is this East-meets-West mix of crunchy, salty, and spicy that embodies what The American Local is trying to do concept-wise. We use a wet batter that is more Southern USA than karaage in style, but our house-made hot sauce has a very Asian bent to it. For us, it's about creating that bridge so that no matter where you're from you can understand our dishes.
Are you still offering sake on tap?
Heck yes! We love the Momo Kawa sake (Sake 1), and the fact that is on top is so awesome! We make cocktails with it, we carbonate it, we use it on a lot of our food too (like the tare on a lot of our skewers).