Shiny new restaurants are a dime a dozen in the Seattle area, but our old-school, solid-gold greats deserve the love, too — and they need our loyal support as the region gets exponentially more costly. Well-priced, locally owned, community-centered and timelessly tasty is what we’re after in this series.
Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill: 16212 Bothell Everett Hwy, Mill Creek; 425-225-6420; toshisgrill.com; Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday noon-8 p.m.
A signature Seattle food got called out recently. J. Kenji López-Alt — New York Times food columnist, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and general practitioner of the culinary sciences — was in town, as his Instagram proved. He posted an image that’s instantly recognizable to teriyaki fans: the square to-go container, cabbagey salad in one corner, the rest piled with slices of grilled chicken, rice peeking through.
“Is Seattle-style teriyaki one of those things you kinda have to grow up eating to appreciate?” López-Alt wrote in the photo’s caption. “It’s… it’s OK,” he opined tepidly. “Kinda… generic,” he continued.
Those are fighting words — kinda. One would hope that a region’s specialty dish would not be speedily dismissed, a matter of mere nurture rather than innate goodness. But López-Alt posed questions instead of issuing condemnations, wondering whether he’d erred in his choice of teriyaki shop (“have I just not had any good versions?”) and asking, sincerely, what he might be missing.
“It is, however, very cheap,” he concluded. “Maybe that’s its thing?”
To the local fan base’s credit, not much umbrage was taken in the 270-plus comments that ensued. We’re secure in our love. We know that our teriyaki — chicken that’s given a simple, soy-and-sugar-based marinade, charbroiled until grill-marked but still tender (ideally, at least), and served in quantity atop mounds of rice with extra sweet-and-salty sauce — isn’t high-minded, and we’re glad it’s not high-priced. A city or region’s signature plate doesn’t need to be a thrill, and maybe it shouldn’t be. Teriyaki is a food by the people, for the people — like its brethren, the humble baked bean, the chewy ring of a bagel, a broad-shouldered deep-dish pie. The now-high-end lobster roll was born of surplus; barbecue came from thrift and need, long before the notion of nose-to-tail or food waste.
Growing up eating teriyaki might give us a more egalitarian take on it, it’s true. Sometimes, we know, Seattle’s best teriyaki is the teriyaki nearest your mouth. The neighborhood teriyaki standby — the one closest to your school or work — these places are good. And good is more than good enough when it’s hot food, seasoned in a fundamentally appealing way, served in bounty and priced within pretty much everybody’s reach. Free-range it may not be, but cheap food is only looked down upon by those whose financial perch affords it. Teriyaki chains are the exception, not the rule, and around Seattle these days, a tasty, inexpensive meal from a mom-and-pop shop amounts to a tiny economic triumph — a subversion of the New Seattle paradigm, even. At a time when small, independent businesses are imperiled in our city, keeping teriyaki alive by eating it could be construed as a small, happy political act.
Some of the commenters on López-Alt’s Instagram post conceded that, yes, some teriyaki is better than other teriyaki. One place was mentioned more than once: Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek, north of Seattle. Those seeking a deeper teriyaki understanding would be wise to visit, for here we find chef Toshihiro Kasahara, credited with originating the entire genre.
As a child in Ashikaga, Japan, Kasahara would catch fish or make chicken skewers for his lunch. “Maybe that was my hobby!” he says in retrospect, laughing. “I guess I had a lot of time for myself.” He came to the Pacific Northwest as an 18-year-old student and wrestler at Portland State University. He lost his first job in the food industry — washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant — when he needed to miss a shift because of a match. “They terminated me!” he says, laughing again. “That was fine.” When he eventually opened Toshi’s Teriyaki in Seattle in 1976, the yakitori-style chicken he’d made as a kid could be found at local Japanese restaurants, he says. But a small storefront, serving an inexpensive version of the meal — his chicken teriyaki, then on skewers, cost $1.85, including rice, salad and tea — represented a new, and newly accessible, presentation of Japanese cuisine. “I wanted to have, I always say, an everyday meal,” Kasahara says. It also represented a risk for him. “People commented, ‘Yeah, Toshi doesn’t have much experience, but he does have the guts,’” he recalls. “You have to try, right?”
That summer, Seattle Times restaurant reviewer John Hinterberger found out about Toshi’s Teriyaki and gave it the same column inches with which he favored more august establishments. “It has a limited menu and limited space,” Hinterberger wrote, “but no limits on the quality or, for that matter, on the size of the servings, which range from abundant to gluttonous.” The article, Kasahara says, “helped a lot.” Over time came more stores, then franchises, too, with the Toshi’s name ending up on dozens of Seattle-area shops. Meanwhile, imitators proliferated to a degree that may not have been sustainable; the bubble eventually popped and the number of teriyaki shops declined. But keep an eye out and you’ll still see them all over the place, hiding in utilitarian-storefront plain sight.
Kasahara eventually sold, but he can’t seem to stay retired. First, he came back with a location in Renton, then sold again; now he’s got the Mill Creek strip-mall spot. While multiple joints in the area called Toshi’s remain, only this one is his. “In the restaurant business, you should have good food plus reasonable prices — that’s what I believe in,” he says. The Mill Creek rent was priced right to allow that, especially compared to present-day Seattle. Moreover, he felt a sense of duty to the form — that teriyaki hereabouts was “losing focus,” that some places were indeed doing a worse job than others.
You won’t see Kasahara at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill, but after you order at the counter — sometimes from his wife, Yoko — you’ll hear him working. A partial wall separates the few tables from the kitchen in the small, functional space, and the sound of chopping and sizzling accompanies some new-age-y smooth jazz. One table holds, considerately, a waiting-room-style spread of magazines. The food here takes time, about 10 minutes, because Kasahara makes it to order. When it comes to teriyaki, waiting is promising, as are actual cooking sounds; at some places, the chicken is premade. “They just warm it up and put sauce over,” he says. “It does not taste good.” (On the phone, he teased me: “What you heard — sizzling or chopping — that was all recorded!” He laughed. He also effused about the music, which is the album series “Kool & Klean” by Konstantin Klashtorni.)
Kasahara says charbroiling, with careful temperature control, is also key to teriyaki, as is marination, which is a corner that some places cut. “They don’t marinate, because when you marinate chickens, you make a mess because of the sauce,” he notes. Skipping the step saves prep time and also keeps the grill cleaner. “It’s easier, but it’s not as good,” is Kasahara’s gentle rebuke. He uses chicken thighs, and he’s politely evasive about the ingredients of his marinade, just calling it “very similar” to what he mixed up as a boy, “not anything new.” Some speculate it only involves the right proportions of soy, sugar, ginger and garlic. The house dipping sauce tastes like those, too, but with an additional, distinct tang — maybe rice vinegar? — rather than the blunt, syrupy-sweetness of some places’ sauce.
Regulars who know to call ahead step into Toshi’s in Mill Creek with punch cards at the ready, maybe to be greeted with a call of “Perfect timing!” In-house eaters open their hinged to-go containers to reveal food so hot that steam is visible. The portions still attain abundant-to-gluttonous level, the piled-high slices of chicken bearing seared stripes from the grill, the taste a perfect confluence of smoky, salty and sweet — a taste that, one could argue, even has subtlety to it. Toshi’s “Red-Hot Spicy” version gets lightly glossed with a sauce speckled with warning flecks of red pepper; the heat works magically with the sweet — not a five-alarm blaze, but immediately noticeable and continuing to creep. Kasahara still uses Calrose rice, from California, the grains plump, chewy and a little glowing.
At some teriyaki places, as more than one adherent noted on López-Alt’s Instagram, the spicy route is the only way to go. At Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek, both versions are excellent — a tribute to the marinade, and to all Kasahara’s care. Best to bring a friend and share. Toshi’s Original Chicken costs $8.15, while Red-Hot Spicy will run you $8.65, with leftovers nearly inevitable. I contacted López-Alt about his lack of teriyaki understanding, but did not hear back — next time you’re in town, sir, I’d be happy to take you there.