A seminal moment for ‘Seattle teriyaki’

Glaze Teriyaki Grill in New York

In the past year, my pre-teen daughter has eaten at McDonald’s three or four times, all of them for breakfast, and at Taco Bell once under protest. While driving across the country this summer, she experienced her first and only Dairy Queen. She has never actually eaten food in a Wendy’s, although she has been inside one, which we cannot say of Burger King, whose food she also has never tasted.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, my daughter is not one of those home-schooled, gluten-free, earth babies dressed in hemp and fed Vegenaise, whole grains, and public television. Like the children of all good Seattle liberals, she has come to loathe NPR, that super-boring station where they talk all weird, as she might put it.

And for better and worse, she eats hot dogs, frozen waffles, marshmallows and along with them, all the nitrites, hydrogenated oils, and corn sweeteners they are made of. At her command are hundreds of channels of cable television, some in duplicate and triplicate. So while I might have once aspired that she live a protected, holistic, self-possessed, de-branded childhood, the truth is that she is steered by the currents of mass marketing in many ways, from the logos on her outfits (Aeropostale) to the array of digital gadgets stuck in her pockets. And she eats plenty of fast food. The vast majority of it just happens to be teriyaki.

While I ate at Burger King after school almost every day 35 years ago when I was in fourth grade — I grew up in Southern California and skipped the school lunch so I could spend the money on a Whopper Jr. with cheese — she has a habit for chicken udon and kalbi beef, which she eats weekly. She does not have a favorite burger place or a favorite pizza stand, but she has a favorite teriyaki shop (or rather had a favorite since it recently closed).

The food that a city makes famous is often, if not always, its most ordinary. Philadelphia’s cheese steak sandwich is universally recognized and recreated with varying degrees of success all over the country; yet it remains a food genuinely of Philadelphia. The same can be said of New York pizza, synonymous with that city, often copied outside of it, but never as good as when you eat it there. Chicago has its deep-dish pizza and its uniquely accessorized version of the hot dog. Buffalo has its chicken wings and its lesser known beef on weck sandwich. Like Baltimore’s pit beef sandwich, the beef on weck never really made it out of its hometown.

Although not a requirement of greatness, a sure sign that a dish has thoroughly claimed a town, and a town has claimed a dish, is the day that food leaves.

In February, in an article about Chicago-style fast food in the University District, I asserted that Seattle does not have street food to call its own. The burger stand culture established here by Dick’s Drive-In was borrowed from Southern California and not unique to the region. California food trends tend to translate well up here, like the Marination taco truck fashioned after Kogi, the original Korean taco from L.A. When it comes to street food Seattle can truly call its own, there is but one, by default: teriyaki.

Teriyaki joints — rare in 1980, they number in the hundreds today — can be found in poor neighborhoods and wealthy ones, in food courts and strip malls, served along with sandwiches inside corner grocery stores. It is sold with hamburgers, fish and chips, Vietnamese pho, and Korean bibimbap. Even Canlis serves teriyaki, albeit just in the bar. Seattle teriyaki takes many forms and has been shaped by the hands of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, into something uniquely American.

Seattle teriyaki’s seminal moment arrived, it can be argued, a few weeks ago when businessman Paul Krug, who grew up in Seattle, opened Glaze Teriyaki Grill in midtown Manhattan, on Lexington Avenue and 54th Street. The sign on his store window reads “inspired by Seattle / made fresh in New York.” Glaze is a slightly upscale version of the mom-and-pop teriyaki shop, although its prices are more or less the same. Teriyaki chicken thigh is $7.75, teriyaki beef $8.50, and teriyaki salmon $9.50.

Glaze uses hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, adds organic micro-greens to its salad, sells gourmet ginger ale, and adds mushroom and bok choy to its miso soup, making it like most Seattle teriyaki joints but “a little nicer,” Krug said.

Krug graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1999 and worked in the Seattle office of Merrill Lynch while earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington. He moved to New York after college “just because I wanted to live here.”

“I lived here for seven years and noticed New York was missing teriyaki,” he said. “It’s something we always talked about. We thought this could be a good business. There’s a ton of Japanese restaurants in New York that offer teriyaki, but it’s a lot more expensive and doesn’t taste nearly as good as it does in Seattle.

“Pure Japanese teriyaki is what you have all over the country. It’s just another entrée to order if you don’t want to get sushi. Seattle teriyaki has a Korean influence to it.”

And until recently, Krug said, the only place you could get it was in Seattle.

Korean immigrants, more than any other group, have made Seattle teriyaki what it is, a souped up, spicier, heartier version of the Japanese original. Japanese teriyaki amounts to a glaze used primarily to cook fish, not chicken or beef. It is certainly not intended to be a sauce ladled over rice or squeezed from a bottle. It is made from rice wine and soy sauce and has a subtle, some say bland, flavor.

Seattle-style teriyaki is more similar to the traditional, Korean preparation for grilled beef and pork. The marinade for Korean bulgogi, or grilled, boneless beef, is made with soy sauce, garlic, scallions, sugar, garlic, and sesame oil. The use of sugar instead of rice wine gives Seattle teriyaki its syrupy sweetness.

A preponderance of teriyaki operators in Seattle are Korean, which is why many teriyaki restaurants offer a secondary menu of Korean basics like bibimbap, tofu stew, and spicy beef soup. Teriyaki shops in Seattle are reasonable stand-ins for full-service Korean restaurants, which tend to be located in the suburbs.

Through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, teriyaki meant either Toshi’s or Yasuko’s, the founding fathers of Seattle teriyaki. Toshi’s grilled its boneless meat on skewers. Yasuko slow roasted its half-chickens and fatty pork shoulders. Known for its spare, almost depressing, interiors, Yasuko’s masterpiece was the pork, succulent and tender and prepared like no other in the city.

Walking up to the counter at Yasuko’s was like visiting a lunch counter in a Third World country. The place was meant for takeout and worth any indignity because of its huge portions and low prices, which were low even by fast-food standards. It was pure, old-school teriyaki, very few tables, no garnishes, no dessert, no side dishes — just rice, meat, and a pile of cabbage, never lettuce. The success of Toshi’s and Yasuko’s set the table for a teriyaki fast-food explosion in Seattle and a new, local cuisine.

Teriyaki became the emblematic Seattle dish so subtly, so quietly, that even people in Seattle didn’t realize what it had become. It was everywhere but did not mean anything in particular until the paid thinkers drew attention to it. The Seattle Weekly traced its origins and ascension in Seattle in a thoughtful, 2007 article that anointed it “Seattle’s own fast-food phenomenon.” A few years later, The New York Times published a similar declaration.

Seattle’s identity as Teriyaki City, U.S.A., is an intriguing, if not wholly accurate, characterization. While the city might hold dear the concept of teriyaki, no particular teriyaki institution is treated with overflowing passion and loyalty by its people. Toshi’s and Yasuko’s could have or should have become to Seattle what Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks are to Philadelphia, what Grimaldi’s, John’s, Pasty’s or DiFara’s are to New York. An Internet search for “best teriyaki in Seattle” does not yield any established hierarchy, any pattern of consensus, just the usual list of somewhat familiar joints we all walk into with predictable regularity.

We have our favorites based as much on proximity as anything else, but in general teriyaki restaurants here are ubiquitous, faceless establishments with generic, forgettable names. And despite some of the national press, and the opening of Glaze in New York, Seattle’s associations with teriyaki are not as well-recited all over the land as its associations with a half-dozen other things like coffee, software, tree-hugging, recycling, beards, and bookstores.

When politicians from this state make bets with politicians from other states, they wager apples or salmon, not plates of teriyaki. When friends visit Seattle, you take them to the Pike Place Market, the Fremont troll, or to the Ballard locks. You send them on a ferry ride, or drive them to North Bend so they can see where Twin Peaks was filmed. If the clouds allow, you show them Mount Rainier. Of all the things you tell them they must do, you do not say, “Oh, you have to eat some authentic, genuine, original, Seattle-style teriyaki!”

Is teriyaki really Seattle’s official dish? Until tourists take photographs with their cell phones of themselves eating a bite of teriyaki, until someone franchises something called the Seattle Teriyaki Company all over the Midwest, the argument is still open.

Meanwhile, Glaze in New York is off to a promising start, Krug said, with solid reviews and many repeat customers drawn from its mainly white-collar lunch crowd.

“Most of these restaurants in Seattle are run by mom and pop with no culinary background,” said Krug, who grew up in Madison Park and ate his teriyaki at a place called Teriyaki Bowl. “What’s unique about what we did is we hired a very experienced, trained chef who happens to be Korean.”

The chef at Glaze is Dennis Lake, who used to be the executive chef at Rosa Mexicano, a very successful, upscale chain of Mexican restaurants that started in Manhattan. Before opening Glaze, he visited Seattle — he had never been to the city before — and spent 36 hours eating all the teriyaki he could stand, from a list put together by friends and family.

“I ended up trying almost 14 places,” Lake said. “One place was horrible, but the level of spicy was lights out. Another place had the best wok vegetables with a great flavor. Another place had great spicy, tangy chicken but everything else sucked. None of the places had everything going for them.”

He combined his favorite elements of several different dishes and places, which is probably what every new teriyaki restaurant in Seattle tries to do.

“We want someone from Seattle to come in here,” Lake said, “and say, ‘Wow that’s awesome, that’s something I always wanted here in New York and it’s even better than what I had in Seattle.’”

Improving or innovating a classic is a tribute that has been bestowed to many simple dishes. Burgers, tacos, pizza, burritos, and hot dogs have all received their upgrades. Now, it is teriyaki’s turn.

“I’ve really tried to spruce it up,” Krug said. He designed the interior in a style that could be described as garage chic, with whimsically constructed chairs made in Brooklyn and tabletops made from reclaimed Douglas fir. It is the kind of spruce-up job you see a lot in Seattle.

“Yeah,” he said, “this kind of restaurant could absolutely work in Seattle.”

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