Miki Okada grills salmon and mackerel, boils eggs and slices vegetables with her hair in a bun, wearing a white kappōgi — a gown-like apron with baggy sleeves that covers her body down to her knees. A rice cooker beeps out a little ditty, telling those listening that rice is ready. A meal will soon be served.
The scene is replicated in millions of Japanese households every day, where wives and mothers faithfully cook for their families. But Okada’s kitchen is in Eugene and anybody who goes to her restaurant can enjoy her food.
She opened Maneki Neko, a restaurant in the market district, on May 16. There, Okada cooks food that she and many other Japanese grew up with.
“We just wanted to do the real, real, traditional, home-style Japanese food,” said manager Masa Itai, who helped Okada open the restaurant.
Maneki Neko, named after the popular Japanese cat figurine that beckons in good fortune, has a simple menu focusing on teishoku: Japanese set meals featuring small dishes served on lacquer platters.
Meals consist of an entrée — currently karaage-style fried chicken, vegetable tempura, grilled mackerel or salmon and a number of side dishes. The basic teishoku starts at $8.50 and comes with rice, miso soup and napa cabbage pickles. For a little more money, one can order the basics plus up to five side dishes.
But the most expensive option is still only $14.
Itai said he and Okada try to keep costs low just like the creators of this cuisine: middle-class housewives who need to feed their families on a budget. And like these women, they regularly switch up entrees and side dishes to utilize available, affordable ingredients.
Itai and Okada take Japanese tradition seriously and want to replicate their flavors of home, unlike the many sushi restaurants in Eugene, which, except for Akira, all have Korean, Chinese or American owners.
“What they’re doing is not real Japanese food,” Itai said.
Itai, a slim man with grey hair who talks to customers in the restaurant while wearing a loose-fitting yellow Hawaiian shirt, was the owner and sole sushi chef of Eugene’s Kamitori restaurant until he broke his finger and had to close the establishment.
Years ago, he met Okada’s partner in Hawaii and they became friends. Back then, she ran a cooking school in Japan where she taught people how to make sushi.
But Okada never had her own restaurant. Wanting to open a business overseas, she reached out to Itai and they collaborated to create Maneki Neko.
“This was my dream,” she said in her slow but proper English.
Okada moved to Eugene from Nagoya only three months ago, but her and Itai have big plans for the restaurant. Okada will start making Eugene’s only real Japanese sushi starting late this summer. Itai, who’s finger is now healed, will also make sushi once a week at Maneki Neko.
With their sushi, as with their teishoku, Okada and Itai will follow tradition.
“Our role to the community is to introduce real Japanese food,” Itai said.