Excavated from the former walk-up window to the now-defunct ARC Arcade on 11th Street in Astoria, Būsu playfully elevates traditional Japanese street food using primarily local Pacific Northwest ingredients.
The playfulness of this izakaya-style stand begins with the name. As chef and owner Kenneth “Kenzo” Booth explained, Būsu inhabits a double meaning. “The Japanese American translation means booth, like informational booth or my last name,” he said. “The Japanese-Japanese meaning is ugly.”
He jokingly raised his hands at this to encompass the whole of his literal hole-in-the-wall, but the place is spotless and cutely adorned with paper lanterns, paintings and welcoming lucky cats, not to mention the architectural improvements and the handsome wooden bar with four seats.
The food, immaculately garnished, is anything but ugly. Each ingredient is thoughtfully, perhaps painstakingly prepared to find its place in the dish. Everything was seasoned to perfection.
Booth, an on-and-off-again Astorian who swears he’s here to stay, has done stints at the Silver Salmon Grille, T. Paul’s Supper Club and Portland’s Montage over the years. He most recently returned from Kansas City where he turned out everything from barbeque to ice cream to steamed buns. Booth rendezvoused with Japanese food for one simple reason. “I didn’t like the way other people were doing it,” he said.
Booth has some bonafides to back this statement up, having spent some time growing up in Japan as a Marine brat and gathering two half-siblings who hail from that Eastern archipelago. He has since kept up with traditional Japanese technique as well as trends.
The menu at Būsu changes briskly, especially during the North Coast’s late summer, when the bounty is plentiful. The prices on the menu fluctuate as well, depending on what’s fresh and available that day. Expect plenty of foraged wild mushrooms in the months to come.
The two mainstays are the okonomiyaki, a savory pancake stuffed with cabbage and onions, and the yakisoba (both $13). Each is available with either braised pork belly or tofu for no additional charge.
I knew I was in for a haul with the okonomiyaki just by the heft of the takeout box. Even if the dish as a whole remained heavy, somewhere under a flurry of delicious salty, smoky bonito flakes and green onions, the pancake was light and fluffy, the cabbage and onions braised sweet but still retaining some crunch and every sliver of crispy, chewy pork belly I found, like little bursts of pure umami, sent me back in for more.
I have found most yakisoba to be like the date night food of college freshmen who want to do something else besides the normal dorm-room ramen on a hot plate. Būsu’s couldn’t be farther from this glib indictment. Noodles bite with a bit of fry, they are not drowning in a saccharine-y, ketchup-y sauce, but rather the sauce infuses into them, heightening every bite. I enjoyed it with both the pork belly and the tofu, though I missed the shower of bonito flakes on the tofu order, even understanding that this immediately made the dish vegan.
Another common menu item is some variation on a miso mushroom soup ($9). Depending on the time of the year, the dashi broth is either spiked with dried shitakes or fresh wild mushrooms. Either way, this soup has bottomless flavor that seems more than the sum of its parts. This is not the cloudy, thin broth studded with a few pebbles of tofu and slices of green onions you find in most sushi restaurants, but instead is a satisfying meal onto itself, hefty as a stew.
Occasionally, the menu veers away from traditional fare. I would not be afraid to take the road less traveled. A recent omelette ($15) playfully combined chile crab and lobster mushrooms. Obviously there’s no actual connection between Dungeness crab and lobster mushrooms, but the pairing really works. There seemed to be a variety of chiles stirred into the crab meat — some fermented, some toasted but there to add more depth of flavor than heat. All of this came wrapped in a French country-style omelette, pillowed with curds and finished with a dash of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. It felt less like two worlds colliding and more like something that would spawn naturally upon a trade route. Very local ingredients meet some Japanese and French techniques.
There is also a bit of a show to the counter service at Būsu. Not the kind of flaccid, onion-volcano theatrics you would find at a Benihana, though flame does sporadically leap from the pan, but rather the attention of the chef who is cooking your food. To his credit, Booth is able to hold court with regulars and newbies alike all while shivering a hot pan on the range. This would seem especially advantageous to anyone with food allegories or dietary restrictions as each order is made individually, and Booth, having farm sourced and house made each one through, what I assume, is an insane amount of prep, knows it all by heart.
After a few visits, I finally gave myself over to Booth’s whims. “I would have the seafood ramen,” he said. “I guarantee this is the best bowl of ramen in the state of Oregon right now.” He wasn’t kidding or even being hyperbolic.
There was so much magic that went into this bowl of noodles ($17). Beginning with a shio tare or salt-based broth, which included three different types of imported Japanese sea salts, there was also Columbia River smoked sturgeon steeped in along with turnips and probably a mess of other wonderful things. Sitting atop a heap of noodles was a soft egg, seaweed, the aforementioned turnips, pickled shitake mushrooms and some meaty, fatty slabs of seared and spiced albacore tuna. This was all finished off with a blizzard of green onions, black garlic oil (possibly the best thing that ever happened to ramen) and a sprinkle of house made sardine salt, which, I know, might sound odd to some diners, but you should never question magic.
There was so much balance to this dish it is dizzying to consider all of its components. One interesting observation is that the spice-crusted tuna did not lose its crusty outer bite nor did the inside ever raise above rare even as I had slurped down half of the delicious broth in the bowl.
Giving yourself over to Booth’s whims brings us to his next venture. While Būsu is open from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, as of Aug. 26, Booth has begun a set of omakase seatings every Monday evening.
Omakase roughly translates from the Japanese to “It’s up to you.” In the United States, this is most often seen at high-end sushi counters, but Astorians might find a parallel with the Columbian Café’s tradition of Chef’s Mercy.
For a set fee (In Būsu’s case, $55 a seat with four seats available during three different settings a night), the diner relinquishes themselves from choices and instead accepts the chef’s offerings. At Būsu, expect an hour to an hour and a half service eventually with tea pairings.
Reservations can be made on their Instagram page, busu_astoria. Booth plans to host these dinners through September and if all goes well, he says he’ll build a counter inside to keep it going through our less forgiving months.
At this time, I have not yet had the chance to fully submit to Būsu’s omakase, but know that when I do, I will be in good hands.