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Restaurant Review: Sake Zilla

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Restaurant Review: Sake Zilla

Hijiki seaweed salad and a flight of sake started our night at Zilla off really well.

©Joshua Liberles

Sake, from 101 through Advanced, and Great Sushi

The Zilla Sake House in the Alberta Arts District is a small, cozy bar that's serious about its namesake Japanese beverage, serves up terrific sushi and has a warm, welcoming -- if quirky -- atmosphere. Zilla offers the largest selection of sake in Portland, and it's clear that's the focus as the sake menu literally fills a book with some 50 varieties, a map tracing their origins and descriptions of each, while the food menu easily fits on one page. That's not to say the food gets short shrift -- the fish in the sushi is fresh and excellent, the presentations meticulous and generous, and the ingredients -- from organic miso soup to real crab in the California roll to actual wasabi as opposed to the green-dyed horseradish that 99 percent of restaurants use -- carefully chosen.

The restaurant's front entrance on NE Alberta St is narrow and easy to miss, and although it's been on my to-visit list for a few years, my girlfriend and I only finally ventured inside for the first time recently. We're both sake newbies, and neither of us are particular fans, but we were curious about the different varieties. We embarked on the Sake 101 flight ($12), which features a sake of each of the three different polish levels -- indicating how refined the sake is -- and, as the name implies, is a great primer. The three varieties were each good and, not surprisingly, were a perfect complement to the sushi and seaweed salad we lined up in front of us. Along the way we learned that we both have relatively unrefined tastes in the sake world -- neither of us had tasted the cloudy, less polished, Ginjo style, and we both liked it best.

Oregon is also home to the US' only sake brewery -- SakeOne is located just outside of Portland in Forest Grove. Even while pursuing international flavors, Portlander's can eat and drink local: six of SakeOne's creations are available at Zilla, and there's a local flight that allows you to try them all.

As for food, we started with the excellent, simple yet very flavorful hijiki seaweed salad ($5). The dark brown sea vegetable had a slightly nutty taste, and it's served with sesame seeds, soy beans, carrots daikon and rice. Next it was on to the sushi -- and we tend to stick to the maki rolls, both due to personal preferences and in an effort to make sushi dining more affordable. The spicy hamachi (yellowtail), unagi avocado and Green Godzilla vegetable rolls were all excellent, well prepared and tasted super fresh ($7/ea).

The dessert menu is limited, but that didn't dissuade us from ordering up a mochi to share. It came wrapped in cellophane and looked like something you might get from a Japanese version of a convenience store, but within lurked a gooey, sesame-seed-encrusted ball with a red bean paste filling -- delicious! In the process, our server taught us that in Japan mochi isn't typically an ice cream product, as it is in the States -- it's glutinous rice with some kind of sweet filling.

Sake, Zilla and the Vibe

The mochi was a pleasant, unusual treat.

©Joshua Liberles

Calling a Portland restaurant "quirky" almost seems redundant -- quirky here is so prevalent that it's almost mainstream. But the clientele seems to be largely regulars who have discovered this gem and keep coming back for more. The staff was engaging and informative -- which is a great thing, because Zilla is like a classroom for sake. If you're an aficionado, you're bound to find new varieties that excite you; if you're new to sake or think that you're not much of a fan, this is the perfect place to experiment. If you don't find something you like here, chances are good that it doesn't exist. I learned that there are plenty of sakes I like a lot -- I'd just never had the experience of the "sake tour" before.

The restaurant is small -- maybe 30 people can squeeze in there -- and they don't take reservations, although I've never seen a waiting line out front. If you're looking to expand your Portland tasting expeditions, be sure to add Zilla Sake House to the list, and take a stroll down Alberta afterwards to burn off some of that sushi and sake.

Sake Zilla Breakdown


  • An impressive sake menu with descriptions, flights and informative servers offer an education.

  • Fresh, delicious, high quality ingredients

  • Alberta Street rocks!


  • Small size means it's intimate -- but also might fill up.

  • Seafood eaters and vegetarians will be psyched; other meat eaters won't.

The Zilla Sake House Basics:

  • The Zilla Sake House is located at 1806 NE Alberta St, in the Alberta Arts District.

  • Getting to the Zilla Sake House: If driving from downtown, take the Alberta Street exit off of I-5 and turn right onto NE Alberta. Also, NE MLK provides good access to Alberta from the north or south. The 8, 9 and 10 bus routes access Alberta, or you can bike up one of the several bike boulevards that serve the area (NE 9th street provides good north-south access).

  • Phone: 503-288-8372

  • Website: zillasakehouse.com

  • Cuisine: Japanese with sushi, sashimi and salads

  • Average tab per diner: $15-20

  • Drinks: In addition to the huge sake menu, cocktails beer and wine are also available.

  • Hours: Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10p.m.*; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m.-10p.m.* N.B.: Last call for sushi is 9:45 p.m.

  • All major credit cards accepted

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