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Asian tapas at Taroko in Grants Pass

“Asian tapas” is a term I’ve heard enter the restaurant lexicon within the past few years.

Open to interpretation, it perhaps implies fusion: Japanese, Thai, Korean or Chinese with Spanish cuisine. There’s also an indication that items will be small plates, evoking Spain’s tradition of snacking while consuming alcohol.

Creative cocktails, rather than food — fusion or otherwise — seem to be the driving force behind Taroko Asian Tapas Bar in Grants Pass. Offering lunch and dinner, Taroko entered the downtown dining scene about a year ago. Passing by its Northwest Sixth Street location this winter, I planned to stop in before much more time elapsed.

Taroko gives its saké selections prominent placement with several explanatory paragraphs, encouraging for the novice. I’d definitely come back to sample some of Taroko’s “nigori” or “junmai” saké varieties, priced from $4 for a small carafe to $12 for a large.

Thirsting for something a little sweeter, I selected a lychee lemon drop ($10) from the list of a dozen drinks while my friend chose the Bali mule ($9), a minty riff on the Moscow classic. Both drinks had a nice citrus pucker balanced by vodka.

Inviting customers to sample, small plates do outnumber large on Taroko’s menu, which mingles Thai, Japanese and Indonesian influences. Skipping over edamame, seaweed salad, satay and sliders, I singled out salt and pepper calamari ($8), even more tempting once our server described it as flour-dusted and seared on the flat-top, instead of the more typical battered-and-fried preparation I anticipated.

For good reason, salt is listed as the squid dish’s first ingredient. Also seasoned with garlic, ginger and four types of peppers, the tender rings of flesh were as addictively salty and lightly crispy as potato chips with just the right hint of heat. I would have happily eaten another plateful.

While the calamari commanded our attention, the tuna poké salad ($11) waited in the wings. Combining Japanese pickles, cucumbers and avocado over organic greens, the cold cubes of raw ahi tuna were soft and luxuriously textured.

I found the portion generous for the price, and the knife work on the tuna consistent, save for just a few sinewy threads. The poké salad is slightly spiced with Sriracha, but diners who favor more fiery foods can order the “avocado bomb” ($11), avocado halves stuffed with spicy tuna, spicy mayonnaise and drizzled with eel sauce.

When confronted with the choice between curry and noodles, I’m hard-pressed to pick just one. So we indulged in two large plates: stir-fried egg noodles with vegetables and tofu ($9) and curry-coconut milk soup with beef ($11).

Both dishes were very similar in flavor and appearance to any number I’ve eaten at Thai restaurants around the region. The noodles were straightforward, lacking any surprise element, but nevertheless proved fresh and satisfying.

Least distinguished among the items we ordered, the curry soup was one-dimensional, rather than nuanced with flavors of lemon grass and kaffir lime, as promised on the menu. And the beef’s flavor and texture suggested a separate preparation and last-minute addition to the soup, making it superfluous for my palate.

The “rendang” ($11), an Indonesian recipe of slow-cooked beef in coconut milk, may be a better choice next time. The dish is available as a lunch special, along with beef, chicken and tofu stir-fries and chili-sauced chicken, accompanied by coconut rice and miso soup from noon to 3:30 p.m. daily. Happy hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight on weekdays.

Located at 414 N.W. Sixth St., Taroko is open from noon to midnight daily. Call 541-474-7108. Events and specials are listed on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Tuna poke salad features raw ahi tuna at Taroko Asian Tapas Bar in Grants Pass. [Photo by Sarah Lemon]