If you’ve eaten Portland sushi in the last two decades, you’ve likely eaten sushi made by Job Martinez. The chef has worked in several notable Japanese restaurants in Portland: He sliced fish in the kitchen of Bamboo Sushi’s first location, at the longstanding downtown sushi counter Masu, at the late-great Sinju and Bush Garden, and at two of celebrated sushi chef Hiro Ikegaya’s restaurants, Mirakutei and Hiro Sushi — in fact, Martinez and his brother bought Mirakutei from Ikegaya in 2018.
After spending 24 years working in other people’s restaurants, however, Martinez has finally built his own from the ground up. In January, the chef opened Kaizen in downtown Portland, a light-bathed Japanese restaurant serving sushi alongside saké and mezcal. Here, Martinez greets fishmongers each morning and begins slicing salmon belly and hamachi; he flicks his wrist as he prepares tamago and tosses tuna and octopus tentacles in ponzu for his take on ceviche. The restaurant serves some of the most beautiful food he’s ever made: briny oysters topped with yuzu tobiko and ponzu, slivers of salmon belly wrapped around grapefruit supremes, Hokkaido scallops and uni dressed in yuzu juice and white truffle vinaigrette.
“That’s where the name Kaizen comes from,” he says. “Continued improvement.”
Martinez moved to Portland from Oaxaca when he was 14 years old, living with his brother, Nicolas. To support himself, he got a job working for Hiro Ikegaya after school, with his brother. “Hiro, he grabbed my hand, he said, ‘this is how you cut,’” he says. “I was making sushi when I was 16.”
By the time he was 20, Martinez’s daughter was born; it was her birth that pushed him to turn cooking into a true career. He viewed his various jobs as learning opportunities: He tried to move to a new restaurant every two or three years, to absorb as much as possible from various chefs and restaurant owners. He learned the fundamentals from Ikegaya, played with elaborate maki at Sinju, learned how to run a business at Bamboo Sushi. He left Sinju to try to go to culinary school, but without a high school diploma, he was stuck. Instead, he says he studied in the kitchen at Bamboo, right when it was beginning its meteoric rise.
“When we opened, there’d be lines of at least 100 people,” he says. “That’s basically where I got my degree.”
From Bamboo he went to Masu, where he climbed up the ranks to head chef. His brother, still working at Mirakutei, began to slowly but surely ask Ikegaya about selling the restaurant to the Martinez brothers. After years of gentle pestering, Ikegaya agreed, on the condition that he could come in from time to time to make sushi. “If I don’t make sushi, I’ll die,” he told them.
Adopting Mirakutei was a serious investment: Nicolas and Job borrowed money from family to buy the restaurant from Ikegaya and were making $30,000 per year trying to get things running. Proudly old-school, Ikegaya wrote out all of his receipts and books by hand, which meant much of the Martinez brothers’ work was a matter of modernizing the restaurant.
“He was so into his craft, he wasn’t paying as much attention to the business side of things,” Martinez says.
With a few years of work, Mirakutei was on solid ground again, and Job and Nicolas Martinez began thinking about opening something brand new. They found a struggling sushi restaurant on the west side and bought it off the owner. Over the course of the pandemic, the two sushi chefs fixed up the restaurant: They hired an artist to paint colossal koi over the banquettes, adding wood paneling and lanterns around the lengthy dining room. When they were finally ready to open Kaizen Sushi, they decided to split up — Nicolas would keep things under control at Mirakutei, and Job would get the new restaurant up and running. So Martinez began diving into the menu, incorporating what he learned from all his past restaurant jobs.
Job Martinez fans will see echoes of his previous restaurants in the menu: Minimalist preparations of sweet shrimp, creamy scallop, and Dungeness nigiri; maximalist maki made with pesto and spicy yuzu; hamachi carpaccio with yuzu jalapeño vinaigrette; sashimi “salmon flights” with salmon belly, salmon aburi, ocean trout, and wild sockeye. The restaurant’s ceviche is all Martinez, however — the chef combines sea bream, octopus, shrimp, and tuna, and tosses it in a ponzu marinade with red onion, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes. “That’s something I wouldn’t do at Mirakutei, but this is brand new,” he says. “It’s something I brought from my culture, my heritage.”
There are a few touches of Martinez’s Oaxacan roots behind the bar, as well: Next to the 15 varieties of Japanese whisky and 40 different sakés, a small-but-growing selection of mezcal is available for cocktails or single pours. The chef hired Enrique Bautista of Mucca to help design cocktails for the restaurant; sommelier Miguel Marquez of República and Vino Veritas assisted with the overall beverage program. Celebrated saké expert Marcus Pakiser picked the bottles on the restaurant’s list; he’s now become a regular at Kaizen, stopping in once a week for sushi.
Years from now, once Kaizen is settled, Martinez would love to go back to Oaxaca to study the cuisine and return to Portland to open a Oaxacan restaurant. But for now, Martinez is simply focused on growing his current restaurants and watching his kids succeed.
“That’s all we ask for — we don’t want to be super rich, we just want to provide for our family,” he says. “We just want to be busy, be comfortable.”
Kaizen Sushi is open at 40 SW 3rd Avenue.