There’s a tall anime-style character plastered to the windows of Rainier Beach cafe Umami Kushi. His name is Afropanman. He’s got a winking smile, a red stocking cap pushed down over his locks, and he holds a steaming okazu pan. He’s styled after the popular Japanese character Anpanman, a cartoon superhero with a red bean paste-filled pastry for a head who defends the world from his evil nemesis, Baikinman.
“[Afropanman] was built to be a character who lives and thrives in the city and his whole thing is to bring this bread to people and make them happy,” says Harold Fields, chef and owner of Umami Kushi.
Fields first started making okazu pan — fluffy, fried dough buns coated in crunchy panko and stuffed with everything from beef curry to yakisoba noodles — in 2009, selling the buns to coffee shops while also working as a chef at the Space Needle’s SkyCity restaurant. Then, in 2017, the Space Needle closed for renovations, leaving Fields with a choice.
With SkyCity closed, he had a chance to ask himself what next. So he decided to take the leap and turn Umami Kushi into his full-time gig.
“We don’t always get that opportunity. We are where we are and we wind up convincing ourselves that it’s hard to take that leap of faith,” he says.
It was “nerve-wracking” but also great, Fields says. He opened the shop in Rainier Beach five years ago, operating first as a commercial kitchen with a small window where people could buy the okazu pan (pronounced “pon”) direct.
Then, with COVID-19 closures came another opportunity, as the neighboring space — a hair salon — closed and the building owners offered it to Fields, giving him the “perfect space for a cafe.”
If you’ve never heard of okazu pan, you’re not alone. Fields says people from the neighborhood come in on a weekly basis saying that while they’ve shopped at the neighboring convenience store for years, they never knew Umami Kushi was there.
To explain what pan is, Fields likes to simplify things by saying, “Just eat one, don’t worry about it.”
Fields first fell in love with the grab-and-go snack while in Japan in 2005. The buns — commonly filled with a rich beef curry — are sold everywhere from gas stations and grocery stores to bakeries.
“It was a unique, fun, convenient snack. I loved it,” he says.
He ate them on every return trip to Japan, and when he started making them in Seattle in 2009, he expanded on fillings — finding that if people didn’t know what okazu pan was, they might have a connection to a filling. Now the menu features everything from smoked salmon to Cajun chicken.
Despite being fried, the dough is light and almost delicate. The rise creates a puff of air between the filling and the bread, but it’s not as if these are underfilled; they are indeed a perfect bite. Because they are designed to be eaten on the go, Fields says warm is the optimal temperature — you can buy them from the shop or a coffee shop and keep them around for up to five hours at room temperature before devouring.
I drove my assortment of pan — lentil, kimchi tofu, mofongo, beef bulgogi and Cajun chicken — back to North Seattle and decided to give them a quick toast in my toaster oven. Fields also recommends throwing them in an oven for a few minutes and has heard from customers that an air fryer works great for reheating.
I found they didn’t even really need to be reheated — I enjoyed the tofu kimchi while sitting at one of the tiny tables in the shop and it was nicely warm. Any way you eat them, these pans are terrific. Each flavor was distinctive and had the perfect consistency. Not too soupy to make for a messy meal, but not too dry, either. The bread is airy, yet filling. Slightly sweet, but with a wonderful crunchy finish due to all that panko, which manages to stay firmly adhered to the bun and not all over your lap or face. They range from $5.50-$6 each, and are about the size of a squished softball.
You can also find Umami Kushi’s pans at Métier Brewing in the Central District, Uwajimaya, Seattle Fish Guys, Espresso Vivace Alley 24, All City Coffee, The Station, Resistencia and Coffeeholic. But the cafe on Rainier is the only place to find whatever new flavor Fields is tinkering with.
Plus, there are fresh, powdered sugar-dusted beignets on weekends (the cafe is open Wednesday-Sunday) and an impressive assortment of locally made condiments (including my current hyper fixation, Kari Kari chili crisp).
Fields says he’ll be rolling out new pan flavors in the next week or so, but even with all the different flavors offered, his favorites are the mofongo, the kabocha squash and the Cajun chicken.
Umami Kushi 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 9099 Seward Park Ave. S., Seattle; 206-723-1887, umamikushi.com
If you’re looking for something else unexpected while in Rainier Valley, look just across Rainier Avenue to Paranormal Pie.
It’s a tiny storefront (right next door to Creamy Cone Cafe) slinging multiple styles of pizza, gyros, pasta and salads. There’s no inside seating, but you can order delivery if you can’t pick up.
The pizza menu is a mix of smaller pies in a variety of styles. There’s classic New York-style pies and Chicago-style deep dish, but I was drawn to the thin crust Mediterranean-style pizzas on the menu.
While I liked the Kafta Kabob pie ($11.95) with its spice-heavy minced ground beef and onion topping (served with a side of creamy, dreamy hummus), my absolute favorite pizza there is the unexpected Greek Gyro Pie ($14.95). It sounds like the brainchild of a stoned frat boy, but it’s downright delightful. Eight slices of goodness — big enough for two — with a thin, almost crunchy crust, strips of gyro meat, red onion, green pepper, hunks of feta and a side of tzatziki sauce for drizzling or dunking. My only recommendation is to ask for extra tzatziki and don’t feel bad if you don’t want to share.
Paranormal Pie 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 9435 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-721-7777, paranormalpiemenu.com