In idler times, I used to keep a running list of new Portland restaurants I hoped might open one day. An Indonesian option or two. More and more interesting dim sum. A casual alternative from the excellent, expensive, exclusive Japanese chef’s counter Nodoguro. I longed to see what “Top Chef” finalist Gregory Gourdet might come up with on his own, free from the corporate vibe at downtown’s Departure. And I wondered whether Han Oak might one day take over the Clyde Common space. (Before moving to Portland, chef Peter Cho’s biggest claim to fame was running the kitchen at another Ace Hotel restaurant, New York City’s The Breslin.)
Over the past few years, many of those dreams came true. Portland has two very good Indonesian restaurants now, one more traditional (Wajan, 4611 E. Burnside St.), the other more modern (Gado Gado, 1801 N.E. Cesar E. Chavez Blvd.). At the start of the pandemic, Nodoguro owners Ryan and Elena Roadhouse opened Tonari (2838 S.E. Belmont St.), an Okinawan cafe with tonguekatsu sliders and an outrageously good purple potato salad, all available a la carte. Gourdet, as you might have read, is diving deep into his Haitian roots at Kann Winter Village, a highly anticipated new restaurant that currently lives as a pop-up inside a dozen yurts at 831 S.E. Salmon St.
As for Han Oak, well, things didn’t quite work out the way I imagined. Just before the pandemic, Cho and his family, including wife and Han Oak partner Sun Young Park, moved out of the cramped apartment behind their restaurant and into a home of their own, quietly ending what had been a defining quirk of the restaurant (I’m referring here, of course, to their two young sons marauding through the restaurant before bedtime, semi-clothed). Meanwhile, early reports of Clyde Common’s early-pandemic death were greatly exaggerated. Instead of closing permanently, the long-running restaurant cleaved itself in two, preserving the popular bar while converting the restaurant into a grab-and-go market, currently concentrating on takeout cocktails and cast-iron pizzas.
As it so happens, Cho and Park did find an opportunity in the West End, just not at Clyde Common. Their new restaurant, Toki, which opened for takeout in the former Tasty N Alder space in January, has an updated version of Han Oak’s menu tweaked for the COVID era with more chicken wings, a fun new bao burger, Cho’s first stab at bibimbap and a handful of dishes inspired by viral food trends spotted on TikTok. But, like the restaurant it replaced, Toki’s destiny, at least in the early going, seems to lie with brunch.
A little over a year ago, Tasty N Alder was Portland’s brunch flagship, not the best or most consistent option, but a prominent downtown location that drew consistent crowds. Cho and Park had discussed the possibility of opening a new restaurant in one of developer Greg Goodman’s buildings over the years, but before last year, the Tasty N Alder space was not in play. Then came the pandemic, and some landscape-altering news for the local restaurant scene: Toro Bravo chef John Gorham, who opened the original Tasty N Sons on North Williams in 2010, stepped back from his company after directing social media threats at a trans woman of color. His restaurant group, which once employed hundreds, dissolved on July 1. Goodman soon reached out to Cho and Park with a deal they couldn’t refuse, and Toki was born.
(The low-risk lease meant the end of Pocha, a drinking-food-focused micro restaurant Cho and Park had been building on the other side of one of Han Oak’s courtyard walls; that space will soon be home to Friendship Kitchen, 2333 N.E. Glisan St., a new Vietnamese restaurant.)
Toki’s dinner menu is filled with Han Oak favorites, with subtle pandemic twists: The shatter-crisp Korean fried chicken wings now come in three flavors, “essence of instant ramen,” a dipped and dusted “Korean hot” version and a third in a sweet garlic soy glaze ($10 for three, $11 for one of each). Han Oak’s great dumplings ($12 for six) make a welcome appearance, stuffed with juicy pork, folded into a plump beanie shape and served with black vinegar in a nod to the famous dumpling chain Din Tai Fung. Tasty knife-cut noodles ($16) and Korean ramyun ($16) are here, too, as are familiar grilled meats including cured pork belly ($16) and sweet short rib galbi ($17). Does it make it home in the same shape it would if served at the restaurant? Of course note. But if these are dishes you crave, as I often do, it’s nice that they’re here, especially with Han Oak on a temporary hiatus.
Cho once said he would never serve bibimbap, the mixed rice bowl more famous globally than any other Korean dish. Yet before opening Toki, he found himself working on an upside-down version inspired by dolsot bibimbap and Persian tahdig, two dishes known for their crispy layers of rice. That recipe is ready to go, Cho told me last month, but doesn’t work for the current takeout model, where food can sometimes sit around as the restaurant waits for a delivery driver to accept a pickup. Instead, Toki serves a more straightforward version with seasonal local veggies ($13; $17 with bulgogi).
According to Cho, some of his best new ideas have come while scrolling TikTok. That starts with the Gim-bap supreme ($8), a “rice sandwich” filled with a rainbow’s worth of pickled and sauteed veggies and crispy nori wrapped up in the style of last year’s most imitated fast food hack, Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme.
“I’ve just run out of ideas,” Cho says, and it’s hard to tell how much he’s joking. “Right before we opened, I was working on making gimbap (Korean-style seaweed-wrapped rice rolls), cutting it, tasting it, and then I thought, ‘Dude, it’s just gimbap.’ And then that stupid tortilla trend happened, and then I saw they were doing it with the nori, and so now we’re doing it with rice on one end, veggies, another piece of tempura-fried nori in the middle. It’s kind of a troll, but I think it’s funny.”
Toki’s steamed bao burger ($8) hasn’t gone viral yet, but it probably should. For this Toki original, Cho smashes two dry-aged beef patties on the grill, adds American cheese, onions and a mustard-y special sauce, then wraps everything in sesame seed bao dough. Seared to order, the result is a marvel of gooey crunch, and a sly wink at a 50-year-old Big Mac jingle. You can pair it with a Dalgona coffee ($4), South Korea’s viral whipped instant coffee drink, or choose from a handful of smoothies including matcha mint chip or mango golden milk ($7; add boba for a buck).
Just like its sister restaurant, Toki has evolved rapidly in its early days, with new dishes coming and going every time you pull up the menu. Tasty N Alder’s kitchen was designed to operate as a steakhouse at night, and grilled meats should continue to play a role. Cho is also experimenting with pizza dough — could Toki end up being Portland’s answer to Minneapolis’ hit Korean pizzeria Young Joni? For now, it’s hard to tell what things will look like in a week, let alone a year.
Still, the brunch menu looks like it might be a glimpse into the future. You can grab a morning bao burger, or a handful of breakfast sandwiches ($7) with meat and American cheese on a split bao bun dusted with everything bagel-style seasoning (Cho and Park are big fans of the breakfast sandwiches at Pie Spot, the small bakery next to Han Oak; it shows). Pastry chef Lauren Breneman is making twisted doughnuts topped with hibiscus blood orange sugar and rainbow sprinkles or passionfruit ganache and toasted sesame ($9 for three). And Toki has the popular Korean street food hodduk ($7), a filled pancake stuffed with ingredients both sweet (sesame, brown sugar and walnut) and savory (japchae; cheese-encrusted kimchi and pork belly). It’s all designed with takeout in mind, and fares well taken home in a box.
But the early star at brunch is the Korean fried-chicken sandwich ($13), a jaw-cranking monster packed with a double-fried chicken thigh glazed in sweet garlic soy, plus pickled daikon, shredded cabbage and a spicy mayo that escaped its toasted Martin’s potato bun and dripped down my dashboard during a recent photo shoot. At first bite, you expect the chicken to collapse like some wonder of modern fast-food engineering, but this is real food, so the chicken doesn’t give way so easily (the meat reminds me more of the Northeastern Chinese style sweet and sour pork at Chin’s Kitchen than something McDonald’s might make). In the end, it’s the flavors that keep you coming back for one bite, then another, until it’s done.
The only thing that would make it better would be a spicy option. Knowing Toki, that could be coming shortly.
Toki serves brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday-Sunday and dinner from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 580 S.W. 12th Ave.; 503-312-3037; tokipdx.com. The restaurant has a TikTok account — @TikTokiPDX, naturally — but has yet to post a video.