KENT — Teriyaki has been a Seattle staple since Toshihiro Kasahara opened Toshi’s Teriyaki in 1976. Since then, hundreds of shops have come and gone, each chef working to put his or her own stamp on the ubiquitous grilled chicken dish.
Xongvilay Insixiengmay threw his hat into the proverbial teriyaki ring in 1989 with his restaurant Saya in Kent. Xongvilay is a refugee from Laos who came to Seattle in 1981. According to his wife and business partner Denise Insixiengmay, he was working as a dishwasher at Capitol Hill’s Hana Restaurant on Broadway when the owner gave him a recipe for Japanese teriyaki. Soon after opening the restaurant with his brother-in-law, Boone Saiyasen, they began adding Thai dishes to the menu but quickly hit a snag.
“We started using fish sauce, but back in the day a lot of our customers didn’t like fish sauce or MSG, so we came up with our own,” Denise says.
The blend combines onion, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sugar and salt, and Denise says they use it to “cook everything in this restaurant.” It set them apart — allowing any dish to easily become vegetarian or even vegan.
It’s brushed on the teriyaki, it’s stirred into the supreme stir-fry and it’s even served as a dipping sauce with the chicken karaage, and it’s wonderful. This sauce is the opposite of the cloyingly sweet sauces that accompany some chicken teriyaki, but still packs an umami punch and makes it easy to see why Saya has become a mainstay in Kent.
Situated in a strip mall just off Route 167, the restaurant is constantly buzzing with the sounds of the ringing phone (Denise says at least half the orders every day are for takeout) and sizzling food from the wok.
Denise, also a refugee from Laos, moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She lived in Utah before moving to the Seattle area with her brother and dad, and she met Xongvilay at her brother’s house.
“He told me come and eat [at his restaurant]. I came and he gave me a great big box of food,” Denise says.
I asked if she thought Xongvilay’s food was good and she laughs, nodding yes.
“I said, ‘Well, I gotta marry this guy!’ ” she says.
The Insixiengmays raised a son and a daughter — both now work at the restaurant. Denise says she’s training her son and a few of his friends in every aspect of the business — cooking, cleaning, serving, taking orders — in the hope that one day she and Xongvilay will retire and one of the boys will take over the restaurant.
In the meantime, she says, “I love my job. I love all my employees and my customers. My customers are my friends now from generation to generation.”
As if on cue, a regular walks in the door and Denise correctly recites his order. “And extra shrimp, right?” she finishes with a smile.
They haven’t changed the menu in 15 years.
“If you have no complaints, why change?” she says.
The menu is a mix of Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes; Thai egg rolls, noodle dishes and stir-fry are listed alongside chicken katsu, salmon teriyaki, pho and sukiyaki.
Denise says if you don’t see a particular dish you want, just ask. One time, a customer asked why she didn’t have spicy katsu on the menu.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know because that’s not my food,’ ” Denise says. “I ask him, ‘You bring me an order and I’ll eat it and I’ll put it on the menu.’ He did and I’ve had that spicy katsu on the menu for 15 years now and it’s a very popular seller.”
I can’t speak for the spicy katsu, but I can say the chicken karaage ($9.50) is so crisp and crunchy there should be cartoonlike captions with those words that explode in the air as you take each bite. Also, each piece of karaage is huge — nearly half a boneless chicken thigh … which makes each crunchy, tender bite even more impressive.
The supreme fried rice ($10.50) is a hefty portion studded with broccoli, carrots, prawns, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts and chunks of pineapple. We ordered it at a two-star spice level and it had a low-level, constant heat. Each ingredient is perfectly wok-fried, each grain of rice discernible, with the perfect chewy-fried texture.
The first time I went to Saya I was with friends and we filled the table with the karaage and fried rice as well as pumpkin curry with shrimp ($12.95), Pad Thai ($11.70), tempura prawns ($11.50) and gai yang, a Thai grilled chicken marinated in coconut milk and yellow curry ($9.50). It was the perfect family-style feast.
Everything at Saya is good. The tempura prawns are crisp, the yellow curry pumpkin soup is rich and slightly sweet from all the pumpkin — surprisingly a good thing! The gai yang is the perfect grilled, salty opposite of the crunchy karaage, and the Thai tea helps you cool the heat if needed.
I had to come back for the karaage and the supreme fried rice, though. If you were to share two things at Saya, it should be those. But also, work your way through the rest of the menu. Each dish is a shining example of comforting, homestyle food made with love — just the way you want it.
“I do what I can to make my customers happy. If they aren’t happy, I have a bad day all day,” Denise says.
Saya: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday; 8455 S. 212th St., Kent; 253-395-7987, saya-restaurant.business.site