How Teriyaki Became Seattle's Own Fast-Food Phenomenon

And what the immigrant-fueled dish tells us about our culture.

Rave all you want about Rover's, Lampreia, and Harvest Vine. What really defines a city's food scene is not its four-star restaurants but its most plebeian cuisine—the glorified street fare that no one thinks about but everyone eats. San Francisco has its super burrito, Philadelphia its cheesesteak. And in the grand picture, someday Seattle's hallowed salmon, voluptuous berries, and cloud-kissed mushrooms may be eclipsed in the national imagination by another local specialty: teriyaki.

You know what a teriyaki shop is, just as you know its variations are minuscule and infinite. You can probably find one in any given strip mall, a bare-bones storefront with a few plastic-topped tables. Typically, there'll be a paper sign advertising a $5.99 chicken teriyaki special taped to the cash register and a culinary hodgepodge on the menu board above it: teriyaki (beef, chicken, salmon), spicy beef, sesame chicken, yakisoba, bibimbap, and California rolls.

Chances are the food is decent but not mind-blowing. But at $7 a meal, who's expecting mind-blowing?

Nothing seems to stop the exponential growth of teriyaki shops in Seattle and its surrounding environs, including market saturation. To wit, the Washington Restaurant Association recently generated a list of all the restaurants in its master database with "teriyaki" in the name, listed by date of entry. As of 1984, the database contained 19 (that is, restaurants still in business). That number doubled by 1987. In the mid-1990s, 20 to 40 teriyaki joints appear to have been opening every year, and the database now contains 519 listings statewide (there are more than 100 teriyaki shops within Seattle's city limits alone)—which doesn't include restaurants that favor "Bento," "Wok," or "Deli" over "Teriyaki" in their titles.

And that's far from the extent of the dish's omnipresence. Pho shops pad their menus with chicken teriyaki. Asian-operated burger joints like Herfy's, Stan's and Dome Burger all feature teriyaki dishes. A Somali cafe down in Tukwila that I reviewed last month offered halal chicken teriyaki; not to mention sushi restaurants, even ultratraditional ones, which offer teriyaki chicken and beef on their menus—something (surprise) you'd never see in Japan.

If you're looking for the roots of the teriyaki shop in Seattle's Nihonmachi, a 12-block Japanese neighborhood (spanning Alaskan Way to the west to 14th Avenue South to the east, and north-south from Yesler to Jackson) that thrived from the late 1880s to World War II, you're essentially out of luck. A historian-compiled map of the area published in Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves' Sento at Sixth and Main plots the existence of tofu makers, noodle shops, and Maneki Restaurant—which celebrated its centennial in 2004—but no teriyaki shops. Same with a 1936 Japantown directory, though Japanese chop suey houses were apparently all the rage.

Nagai Kafu, a Japanese writer who memorialized the years he spent in Tacoma and Seattle in a 1908 short-story collection called American Stories, may offer the only glimpse we get of a proto–teriyaki shop. In "A Night at Seattle Harbor," his narrator spends an evening wandering around Nihonmachi, stopping in at a sooty basement restaurant whose proprietor offers him tempura, soba noodles in soup, and sake. After the meal, the narrator regains the street, following three men whose conversation he has been eavesdropping on: "Turning right at the straight main street, just as they were doing, I found that the road narrowed but was filled with more and more people, and saw on one side of it stalls grilling pork or beef with smelly oil. It seems that such a scene, with stalls in the poorer streets or bad quarters, is not limited just to Asakusa in Tokyo."

In fact, teriyaki's pedigree can be best described as a mutt of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and European cuisines. And its origins are far more recent—and intensely local.

In 1976, Toshihiro Kasahara, a young man with a wiry wrestler's build and a demure trickster's smile, arrived in Seattle, nine years after emigrating from Ashikaga City, Japan, to study business at Portland State University. He finished school in 1972, then bounced around the country, working as a shipping clerk and doing short cooking stints in Japanese restaurants. He ended up in Seattle because it seemed to offer him greater opportunity than Portland. That opportunity was teriyaki.

On March 2, 1976, Kasahara opened Toshi's Teriyaki Restaurant at 372 Roy St., on Lower Queen Anne. It had 30 seats and five menu items: teriyaki chicken, teriyaki beef, and tori udon (noodles in chicken broth), which were served all day long, plus teriyaki steak and Japanese-style chicken curry at dinner. Each plate came with a mound of white rice, packed into a scalloped mold that he imported from Japan, as well as a cabbage salad with a sesame oil and rice-wine vinegar dressing. The cost for a chicken teriyaki plate, including sales tax, was $1.85. Chicken-beef combos ran a whopping $2.10.

Kasahara can't say what inspired him to use sugar instead of the traditional sweet rice wine in his teriyaki sauce—it could have been a Hawaiian inspiration, but more likely it was cost—but the ur-teriyaki, the teriyaki from which a thousand restaurants have sprung, was a blend of soy, sugar, and chicken juices brushed onto yakitori, or grilled chicken on a stick. "I made teriyaki sauce and put chicken or beef on skewers," he says. "I broiled them, then dipped them in sauce, and went back and forth into the oven."

Self-deprecating and bemused at the effect he has had on Washington's restaurant scene, all Kasahara will say of his original plan is, "I had friends in the restaurant business, so I wanted to have my own business."

In July 1976, Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger wrote a review of Toshi's, in which he stated, "It has a limited menu and limited space but no limits on quality or, for that matter, on the size of the servings, which range from abundant to gluttonous." The review made the business. (Seattle Weekly passed on reviewing Toshi's, focused as we then were on more elevated fare.) In turn, Kasahara was able to hire more people, and eventually business was strong enough that he could cut the hours down from six days a week to five, giving him an extra day off.

In 1980, he opened a second Toshi's. Located on a side street in Greenlake, this Toshi's offered strictly takeout, specializing in teriyaki half-chicken served with molded rice, cabbage salad, and pickles for $2 (also on the menu were teriyaki beef and chicken curry). Hinterberger dutifully repeated his previous praise in a glowing review of the second outpost.

Yasuko Conner, the first employee of Toshi's Teriyaki Two, as the restaurant was known, recalls, "One day for lunch we would do 40 orders at best. Then, after John Hinterberger wrote [his March 1981] article, we got so busy right away. Out of 300 customers, I would only notice two or three. I would never have time to look up. When the customer lines ended, and there were no lines for a while, we would stretch up and start laughing because there had been so much tension."

Kasahara didn't just have a solid business model and a good product working for him—he had also tapped into a regional culinary zeitgeist, wherein people in Seattle were eating more healthfully and embracing a plethora of Chinese and Japanese flavors. At the same time, tens of thousands of Asian immigrants were moving to the Puget Sound, looking for small businesses they could call their own. All these trends coalesced around an all-American blend of soy sauce and sugar, and a Seattle classic was born.

At University Teriyaki, the $6.99 chicken-beef teriyaki combo comes with two mounds of meat (the owner claims he serves up to 22 ounces per order), two perfectly formed globes of rice, and a carrot-flecked iceberg-lettuce salad drizzled with a loose, sweet ranch dressing. The edges of the shaved beef almost crackle from the caramelized sugars in their marinade, and the sliced grilled chicken thighs glisten with a thick, brown, sweet-salty teriyaki sauce. In case you need more to smother your rice in, there's an additional squeeze bottle on each table.

But teriyaki isn't merely meant to be a sauce—it's just one of a number of ways that the Japanese grill fish.

"The meaning of teriyaki is that teri means 'glaze' and yaki, 'to cook or grill,'" says Hiroko Shimbo, a Japanese cookbook author and cooking instructor based in New York. "Teriyaki is applied usually to fish. The fish can be marinated in the teriyaki sauce, which is a mixture of sake, mirin (sweet rice wine), and shoyu (soy sauce). When the fish is put on top of the fire, the marinade is removed—otherwise, it would burn easily. Towardthe end of the cooking, the sauce is painted onto the surface, so the fish acquires a glossy appearance from the sugars in the mirin."

So what about teriyaki chicken and steak? They're American interpretations, says Shimbo. "In America, teriyaki became so popular it actually came back to Japan," she explains. "One of the popular Japanese chain restaurants, Mos Burger, created a teriyaki burger."

As for the sauce, there are a number of theories about how the American version of the marinade came to be. Rachel Laudan, author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage, claims that it originated in Hawaii's Japanese community sometime in the 1920s and '30s. "People began substituting sugar for the sweet mirin, which makes sense on an island where they grow sugar cane," she says. "Then ginger and green onion was added, and sometimes garlic as well. Those may be Chinese influences, since they don't seem to crop up in Japan."

By the 1960s, teriyaki sauce—in its new form, applied to grilled meats and poured over rice—had become as prominent a part of Hawaii's culinary landscape as pineapple and poi. Given America's fascination with "Polynesian" food in those post–World War II years—sparked by the state's growing tourist industry, as well as soldiers and sailors who'd passed through Hawaii—it's not hard to think that Seattle inherited its love for teriyaki from Hawaii. Teriyaki beef showed up on 1950s-era menus at Canlis (where it's still available) and the late Windsor Hotel's Kalua Room.

But that's not the only point of origin. Sento at Sixth and Main, the aforementioned chronicle of Japanese-American communities on the West Coast, contains a couple of pictures of a teriyaki chicken fund-raiser that the Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol, Calif., held in 1954. And Joan Seko, who ran Bush Gardens in the International District with her late husband, Roy, for 40 years, remembers serving teriyaki steak from day one.

"The reason our teriyaki sauce was so good was that, when we started in 1957, we used the same sauce all the way through," she says. "We would make a new sauce, throw the old one back in the pot—so the flavor would just keep going." Seko stresses that they always used soy sauce and mirin, not the déclassé sugar-soy syrup that Seattle's teriyaki shops now use.

Scott Edward Harrison, serials librarian for the University of Washington's East Asia Library, says that even though Seattle's Japanese community was practically destroyed during World War II by its forced exodus into out-of-state internment camps, Japanese restaurants like Bush Gardens and Maneki flourished anew a mere decade after combat ended. "Japanese restaurants re-established themselves in the late 1940s and 1950s, and they were almost exclusively for the Japanese returnees from camps," reflects Harrison. "Their biggest surprise, though, was the returning Caucasian servicemen, who had developed a taste for sukiyaki and whatever in Japan. When they got back to Seattle, they were fairly good customers. That was one thing that helped re-establish the Japanese restaurant business here."

Seko says that in its heyday, Bush Gardens was one of the largest restaurants on the West Coast—a real destination. "We had execs from Boeing, a lot of movie stars, prominent people," says Seko. "Princess Michiko from Japan came, with her mother and father. Elvis Presley wanted to come, but the Colonel told him he couldn't."

Just a year after he opened Toshi's Two, Kasahara hungered for more action. So he embarked on the pattern that would mark his career in teriyaki joints and spark their exponential growth. Kasahara began leapfrogging restaurants, selling one Toshi's Teriyaki and using the funds from the sale to open a new one—rarely owning more than two restaurants at a time.

"After Greenlake, I opened a store in Ballard," he says. "Then I went to about 145th on Aurora, and after that, Lynnwood, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Greenlake again. At that time, there weren't many competitors, so wherever I went, it worked out."

The Lower Queen Anne store was sold to a former manager. Same with the Greenlake store, which Conner snapped up. Conner, who was 42 when she began packing rice and chopping cabbage at Toshi's Two, renamed it Yasuko's Teriyaki, and soon began to emulate the expansionist strategy of her former boss.

"I'm very fortunate," she says. "I had my lifetime great opportunity. Toshi sold me a restaurant, and I had a chance to explore myself." At her peak, Conner owned nine Yasuko's (she sold six of her stores in the 1990s).

The story from here isn't as clear. But from what Kasahara and other longtime Toshi's Teriyaki owners say, he sold his Aurora branch to a man named K.B. Chang. With it, he sold the Toshi's name, albeit inadvertently. As Kasahara explains, "The contract did not say that he could not open other stores using the same name, so it created a mess."

Chang couldn't be reached for comment, but according to Hyung Chung, whose parents bought the Aurora store from Chang in 1989 and still run it, in the late 1980s, Chang rapidly opened five or six Toshi's Teriyakis, taking the same restaurant-flipping tack as Kasahara had. Eventually, in the early 1990s, Kasahara was forced to settle with Chang to reclaim the sole rights to his name.

After that, Kasahara got savvier. He stopped flipping restaurants and decided to franchise Toshi's, selling more than 15 licenses at a cost of $10,000 apiece. The fee included three to four weeks of Kasahara teaching the new owners his recipes; after opening, the franchise would owe him 3 percent royalties on its sales.

This strategy worked for a few years, but soon his customers began neglecting their payments or asking him if they could pay him a lump sum and forgo the royalties. "I couldn't say no," Kasahara says.

His main problem was that teriyaki was no longer his—it belonged to all of Washington. Kasahara estimates that he opened 30 Toshi's over the years. By the early 1990s, not only were Conner's and Chang's rival businesses doing well, but now Toshi's had to compete with local chains like Happy Teriyaki, Teriyaki Madness, Yoshino Teriyaki, Sunny Teriyaki, Kyoto Teriyaki, Toshio's Teriyaki, and dozens of other one-off outfits. Similar outfits sprung up in Auburn and Bellingham, and began spreading across Oregon, too.

Kasahara's last official Toshi's, in Duvall, opened just as the Iraq war began. But by then, he says, "I was so tired of it; it was time to quit." These days, Kasahara is doing exactly what he's done for 30 years, except it doesn't involve food. He's buying distressed homes in foreclosure, fixing them up, and renting or flipping them. But his two sons—one in high school, the other in college—are pressing him to go back into the business to which he has given his name.

"If I do open another store," Kasahara says, "I would do it maybe differently. It doesn't have to do with teriyaki. If you do good food, low priced, people will come."

Even though Kasahara sold his restaurants and franchises to people of Caucasian, Chinese, and Indian descent, among other origins, it was Koreans who really ran with the concept. Part of the explanation for this is simple demographics: According to HistoryLink.org, "Between 1970 and 1980, the national Korean population increased by 412 percent; in King County the growth was 566 percent." The 2000 census identified almost 47,000 King County residents as being of Korean descent.

"A lot of Korean people come here in 1980, '81, because they don't have jobs," says Chung Sook Hwang, who opened Yak's Deli in Fremont in 1983 and now runs University Teriyaki on the Ave. "Boeing is closed down, so Korean people go to work in Japanese [i.e., teriyaki] restaurants."

Yak's Deli, which originally served eight items, including teriyaki chicken and yakisoba, proved so successful for Hwang that friends and acquaintances started asking him how they could get into the business. The owner of Tokyo Gardens is a friend of Hwang's who followed his advice, and the Happy Teriyaki chain's founder is Hwang's nephew.

Yasuko Conner says that when she began selling off her various Yasuko's locations, her real-estate agent placed advertisements in Korean-language newspapers. Hence, she sold almost all of her properties to Koreans. "I think a lot of Korean people didn't have skills, like me," says Conner. "That attracted them. And they don't have to hire too many people."

When the Koreans took over the teriyaki business, they began introducing changes. First off: experimenting with the sauce.

"The original Japanese teriyaki is not very popular with Americans," says Jong Kwan Ahn, who owns Teriyaki Madness on 15th Avenue East with his wife, Kyung La, whom most of the people in the neighborhood know as "Sarah."

"We Koreans made it more interesting for people. The Japanese have only three ingredients for seasoning: sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar. We have 20 to 30 ingredients for making seasonings. Teriyaki tastes much different."

The Ahns are typical of the wave of entrepreneurs that made a hundred teriyaki shops bloom. The couple, who are in their 50s, emigrated from Korea more than 30 years ago, but first settled in Atlanta and Baton Rouge, where Jong Kwan worked in the restaurant business. When they moved to Seattle 17 years ago, the Ahns opened a series of doughnut shops and cake bakeries, small businesses that had proved successful in the South. When those failed, they opened a place that specialized in the two cuisines Jong Kwan had mastered in Louisiana: Italian and Cajun. That one flopped, too.

"We were looking for what is good for Seattle," Sarah says. "Finally, Mr. Kim told us that Seattle people like healthy food, grilled food."

Mr. Kim, their acquaintance, had started up Teriyaki Madness on 15th Avenue East, but was too old to continue running it. So the Ahns bought him out and quickly began instituting changes. They re-seasoned the sauce, spruced up the pickled cucumber half-moons that the Madness chain substituted for salad, and added Chinese dishes that Jong Kwan had learned to cook in the South—as well as vegetarian dishes that appealed to their health-conscious Capitol Hill clientele (their location across the street from Group Health attracted doctors and patients). Eleven menu items soon grew into 37.

Now, in addition to Teriyaki Madness, the couple runs two other restaurants, including the Teriyaki King in Wallingford that they just purchased.

Despite the multiculti mix of dishes on Teriyaki Madness' menu, it only includes one quasi-Korean dish: short ribs (kalbi) brushed with sweet teriyaki. "Real Korean food has too much seasoning for most Americans," Sarah explains. "The problem is also that in Korean restaurants, you have so many free side dishes that it takes a lot of money and people to make. Teriyaki being a small operation, it's simple to operate. That's why Koreans like opening teriyakis more than Korean restaurants."

Just to put this city's hundred-plus teriyaki restaurants in perspective, there are 12 McDonald's in Seattle proper, 15 Jack in the Boxes, six Burger Kings, and 12 Taco Times. Teriyaki's dominance over the local grab-n-go market seems to validate the notion that Seattleites are famously indifferent-to-hostile toward fast-food chains, preferring instead to patronize little mom-and-pop operations that charge the same prices for less fatty foods.

But while teriyaki has its supporters, it also has part-time lovers and outright enemies. "I'm a landscaper, so I eat at teriyakis two to three times a week," says Bellevue resident Adam Harke, who moonlights as DJ Rad'em (normal order: spicy chicken). "It's quick, easy, and reasonably healthy, so it does the job and doesn't bog you down. If I'm working outside, I can't be eating a cheeseburger."

"I pretend like it's a healthy meal and well balanced," says Tyler Tennyson (normal order: chicken breast or katsu), who runs around the corner from his downtown Bellevue office to a teriyaki shop whenever he forgets to bring his lunch. "But it's just iceberg lettuce and meat. It's not all that healthy."

"I think teriyaki's foul," says Interbay resident Chris Chantler, an ICU nurse (normal order: never). "I'd rather eat sushi out of a vending machine. The meat is gross, and more than once I've felt ill afterward. I think of it as college food. You pay a few dollars and you get a massive portion."

Then there are teriyaki's missionaries. In 2002, Kirkland native Eric Garma finished his degree in business administration and moved to Las Vegas. He and his cousins, Rodney and Alan Arreola, who'd grown up eating at the Teriyaki Madness in Kirkland, were brainstorming their first postcollege business.

Garma was driving around the desert city, looking at the storefronts, when he thought, "Hey, there are no teriyakis here." So the three approached the former owner of their hometown store, who agreed to sell them his recipes and show them how his operation worked. With some family money, they opened a teriyaki shop in Vegas, and business has since taken off.

They've now got two corporate stores in the city and three franchise licenses, with two more franchise stores opening up this September. Garma's also planning to open a store in Boulder, with the goal of spreading Teriyaki Madness (mascot: an Asian Elvis impersonator) throughout Nevada, Colorado, and other Southwestern states.

"With the health craze, it's the perfect time for this to happen in Las Vegas," Garma says. "Everyone's raving about Asian food. I think the next big thing here would be pho and Thai food, eventually, but the first thing is teriyaki because a lot of Americans know teriyaki [sauce]."

Teriyaki is fascinating because it is so nondescript—so perfectly a mirror of who we are and how we eat in Seattle that we pay no attention to it. I've eaten at a dozen teriyaki shops in the past two weeks, and the quality has varied wildly. I've suffered through dry mystery meat covered in soy-flavored pancake syrup, and devoured juicy chicken thighs lacquered in a complex salty-sweet marinade. The two shops I will seek out again? The one around the corner from my office, and the one just down the street from my house.

The point isn't that teriyaki shops are fantastic or awful—it's that they're cheap, fresh, and convenient, which is what Toshi Kasahara always intended. "I wanted to make a dish that was very affordable, so that it might be cheaper for people to come eat at my restaurant instead of making their own meal."

When he looks at his legacy, Kasahara does get concerned about quality. "I wish they'd do a little better of a job," he says of his many imitators. "When I opened the first store, I pretty much cooked to order. I didn't have a steam table [to keep cooked meat in] because it gets dry. Probably all of them have one now, to keep the meat ready to go."

Thirty years on, Kasahara still cooks teriyaki chicken for his family. "The other day, my kids bought teriyaki home from the Kirkland store," he says. "I thought it was pretty good. They say, 'It's pretty good, but not as good as yours.' I think they were just trying to flatter me."

jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus