Through much of the 20th century in Japan, casual cafes popped up in small towns around the country, serving things like tea and coffee, Japanese curry, sandwiches, and breakfast fare. Kissaten, as they’re called, live somewhere between a cafe, a diner, and a teahouse, rustic and welcoming, serving dishes like pizza toast: a slab of bread, dressed with either tomato sauce or ketchup, and finished with cheese and other toppings.
Kimura Toast Bar on North Williams is, by no means, a kissaten. If anything, it feels like a sweet little neighborhood coffee shop: couples chat over cardamom lattes, 30-somethings work from their laptops. If it weren’t for the shokupan plushies, the dancing toast artwork on the walls, and the plastic-wrapped loaves of square milk bread in the case, the average passerby, looking at the tables, may not put together that it is, in fact, a toast bar.
But when I walk into Kimura, I head straight for these toasts; in particular, the pizza toast, topped with all-beef hot dogs.
It arrives on an inch-thick slab of shokupan, which gets such a perfect, crispy exterior that it seems impossible, like some sort of plastic prop. At the center hides soft milk bread fluff, sweet and just a touch yeasty, sort of like what you want Wonder Bread to taste like (though it never does). It supports a super-slight layer of tomato sauce — it’s not glomped on — and a sheet of melty muenster, one that doesn’t break or accrue dots of brown. Instead, it’s just melted enough to get a satisfying stretch and pull of cheese. On top of the cheese, a few deliberately placed all-beef hot dog medallions, just a touch smoky in that fun hot dog way, serve as pedestals for super-thin slices of onion and green pepper. Now, don’t take my waxing poetic as a sign that this is a fussy, cheffy dish; it’s not. It is somehow reminiscent of square school cafeteria pizza, pizza bagels, and ballpark franks all at the same time and in the best way.
I am not Japanese, but I did grow up eating cheese on toast. My mother, who lived in Norway in the late 1960s, spent many mornings eating havarti with dill on toast, and she passed on that tradition to me as a kid. I’d wake up, trudge into the living room, and curl up under a blanket on the floor, directly next to the small space heater under our kitchen counter. My mother, similarly not a morning person, would throw a few pieces of bread in a toaster, and eventually place a small plate with toast next to the mound that was my comforter-covered head. We had no toaster oven, so she would slice a small sliver of cheese using the ostehøvel, a handheld cheese slicer invented by a Norwegian businessman in the 1920s. Soon after the toast popped, my mom would drape the slice of green-flecked cheese on the bread, letting it melt off the still-radiating heat.
This morning ritual was as close as I got to pizza toast, outside of the coveted snacks forbidden in my somewhat-crunchy Oregon household: Totino’s Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets, and pizza bagels were all illicit delicacies reserved for summer camp snack bars and sleepovers. The truth is, the flavor of pizza — even reflections on an anagram of the real thing – is beloved for a reason: The salty-creaminess of cheese, challenged by the sweet acidity of tomatoes and reinforced by some sort of fatty cured or processed meat, tastes good in a supremely comforting way. There’s a reason why cracker-y pizzas can be found on the streets of Aguas Calientes in Peru, why grocery stores in Puerto Rico stock empanadillas de pizza in the freezer aisles, why Calbee makes variations of pizza-flavored chips to sell in the convenience stores of Tokyo.
Good pizza is hard to make; it takes practice. The dough needs a watchful eye, to make sure it doesn’t overproof. It takes a while to understand how to stretch it, so the uncooked crust doesn’t break or turn lumpy, resulting in an uneven bake. It almost always requires a hot, hot oven — usually one hotter than what exists in your house. But you know what isn’t hard? Slicing and toasting bread, or cutting a bagel in half, or sticking something frozen on a cookie sheet. It’s a quick-and-dirty, even-a-kid-can-do-it version of the dish. It can be made with nothing more than a toaster oven, in the back of a Japanese kissaten or in a North Portland cafe.
And still, although I could make pizza toast at home, there’s something meticulous about the version at Kimura – a passionate homage to a quintessential comfort food, to kissaten. Kimura Toast Bar owner Kayoko Kaye made more than 75 versions of shokupan for the restaurant before figuring out the right recipe, commissioning Dos Hermanos bakery — just a few blocks away — to bake loaves for the cafe; before that, she was baking shokupan regularly for her family over the last three decades. So Kimura’s pizza toast, whether it’s the hot-dog-topped one I adore, or the corn-cheese version fit for vegetarians, feels like something made by a parent as an afternoon snack. When things feel insurmountable or exhausting, Kimura’s pizza toast yanks me out of adulthood and allows me to feel young, without responsibility. After the last year, I’ll bask in that feeling whenever I can, one slab of cheese-topped bread at a time.