The Teriyaki Shop: Seattle's Unspoken Obsession

Seattle's favorite food is something hardly anyone ever talks about, even though thousands of its residents eat it every day. Restaurants serving it vastly outnumber burger places, pho joints, and Thai restaurants, but nobody's posting glistening photos of it on Instagram. It's not the type of establishment Anthony Bourdain name checks when he visits Seattle, and yet it's popular with construction workers, techies, and healthcare professionals, all of whom you can often find in line at a single place: the teriyaki shop.

Teriyaki is Seattle's Philly cheesesteak, our Chicago hot dog. But instead of shouting about it, we're like a city of sleep-eaters. Teriyaki—grilled boneless chicken thigh served over rice with sweet soy sauce and salad—is the specialty of over 500 restaurants in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area. To me, it's the perfect meal. The grill char in the chicken prevents the accompanying sauce from being cloying, and the salad is a refreshing palate cleanser. Getting the right proportion of rice, salad, and chicken into your mouth is the mastered skill of the practiced teriyaki eater.

Teriyaki is also such an invisible part of the landscape that the last time I wrote about it, it made me a minor celebrity. In 2010, I wrote an article about my favorite teriyaki shops for Seattle Magazine. A TV producer read the article and asked me to be a guest on New Day Northwest, a local daytime talk show that will apparently take anyone it can get. One of the restaurants I mentioned, Nasai Teriyaki, took a screenshot of me from the show, blew it up to poster size, and put it out in on a sandwich board in front of their shop in the University District. The text said something like, "Random Guy On TV Admits To Eating Teriyaki." For the year or so the sign was up, people would come up to me and say, "Hey, did I see your picture outside a teriyaki place?" The tone of voice usually made it sound more like, Hey, did I see your picture taped to the register at a convenience store?

Another restaurant I wrote about, Osaka Teriyaki, was as known for run-ins with the health department as it was for its lunch special, which was suspiciously cheap even by teriyaki standards. You know how sometimes you go into a restaurant and think, "This place has to be a front for something?" Osaka was actually a front for something: The owner was arrested in 2015 for fencing stolen iPads concealed in 10-gallon Kikkoman soy sauce buckets. Still, even when a teriyaki place is totally above board, there's something furtive about the way we duck inside at lunch and emerge minutes later with a styrofoam container of chicken and rice, lending the teriyaki joint an aura of seediness. A serious food lover in Seattle is more likely to express their love for Folgers instant coffee than chicken teriyaki.

The local conspiracy of silence around teriyaki is somewhat easy to understand. After all, teriyaki is out of step with how Seattle likes to imagine its food habits. It's made with cheap factory chicken and white rice (though brown is always an option). The sauce is loaded with sugar. The salad is usually iceberg lettuce with some mysterious creamy, mayo-based dressing. No one is doing local, organic, farm-to-table teriyaki, although you will find beef tenderloin teriyaki on the menu at Canlis, Seattle's highest high-end restaurant.

And yet, despite Seattle's refusal to embrace it publicly, there are so few other cities that do teriyaki right—or at all. When my wife was in grad school, we moved to New York City for a year. My first project was to sample the teriyaki places around Columbia and pick a favorite. There were zero teriyaki places. It was as if I'd arrived in New York and a friend had said, "Yeah, burgers aren't really a thing here."

"I still have never met anyone in New York who's ever heard anyone ever say, 'Let's go get teriyaki,'" says Paul Krug, who founded Glaze Teriyaki in New York's east Midtown in 2010, after growing up in Seattle in the '90s. Glaze now has locations in New York, Chicago, Madison, and San Francisco, and remains one of the only restaurants serving Seattle-style teriyaki outside Seattle. Sadly, it arrived a decade too late to satisfy my NYC lunch cravings.

In a 2007 piece for Seattle Weekly, restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman meticulously detailed the history of Seattle teriyaki. It started in 1976, when Toshihiro Kasahara opened Toshi's Teriyaki Restaurant in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. Kasahara is Japanese-American, but as Kauffman explains, most teriyaki places these days are owned by Korean-Americans, and the sauce they serve is more like a less-garlicky Korean-barbecue marinade than anything Japanese. Grilled chicken (yakitori) and eel (unagi) in Japan is basted with a sauce that we would also call teriyaki, but it's much less sweet than Seattle teriyaki. I always enjoy the bewildered responses of friends visiting from Japan when they first try the Seattle version. The sauce varies from shop to shop—sometimes it's loaded with ginger, for example—but it is always, always based on soy sauce and sugar.

Teriyaki places often have long menus, the kind with black plastic letters on a white board. In addition to chicken (the most popular order at every place), you can also get beef or pork, while many shops offer Chinese-American food (General Tso's chicken, Mongolian beef) and, more recently, Korean options (bulgogi, bibimbap). A lot of teriyaki places used to advertise fish and chips, but this trend seems to have evaporated. Unless you're after a vegetarian option (veggie yakisoba is often quite good), however, stick with the chicken.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Seattle teriyaki, and these days Kasahara cooks at Toshi's Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek, 20 miles north of Seattle. The food at Toshi's remains excellent. The salad is tangy coleslaw, and the beef—an afterthought at most teriyaki joints—is thickly sliced and tender. But for most Seattleites, it feels weird to drive half an hour for teriyaki. Their favorite teriyaki place is the one closest to their house, or their office, or where they went to school. There are bad teriyaki places, but no great ones.

And that's fine. It means whenever you get hungry, you can go to Teriyaki Madness, Nasai, Toshi's, Sunny Teriyaki, Kyoto Teriyaki, or whatever place is on the nearest corner. Order the special, and lunch will be good—filling but not gut-busting—and under $7. Then, do what a true Seattleite does: go back to work and completely put teriyaki out of your mind, until your next lunch craving strikes.