Teriyaki Takes The Town -- Everybody's Making It, Including Many Small Delis

A little more than a year ago, Chang Sook "Tina" Hwang was toiling away in a New York City deli when a Seattle friend phoned.

Move to Seattle, the friend urged. Open a teriyaki shop. It's a moneymaker.

"I didn't know what's teriyaki," Hwang recalls.

But she came here anyway, bought Woks, a small place on an industrial street in Georgetown, and soon realized her friend was right. Even with an obscure location and no advertising, customers mobbed the place.

"In Seattle, teriyaki is better than a deli for making money," she says happily.

Indeed! While Seattleites have marveled that we've become latte land - that being an upscale fad that makes a cheap cup of coffee expensive - a reverse trend has quietly boomed, taking what was considered expensive food and making it cheap.

Seattle, as Tina Hwang discovered, has enthusiastically embraced teriyaki as its own low-fat, good-for-you fast food.

As in here's lunch: teriyaki chicken or beef bearing that distinctive Japanese-inspired flavor of soy, ginger, sugar and garlic. Add a huge mound of rice. Throw in some salad or veggies. Put the whole thing in a foam container, and offer it for about four bucks out of a place that makes little else.

That's some change from the traditional home of teriyaki: full-menu, often high-priced Japanese restaurants that have also inspired another rave - sushi.

"Teriyaki is very popular, but nobody seems to realize it - it just slid in," says Tracey Driflot of the Seattle-King County Health Department, which licenses eating establishments.

How popular?

While there's no way to tally how many teriyaki places exist because the Health Department doesn't list them that way, a departmental computer did disclose this telling fact:

King County can boast 107 eateries with the word teriyaki in their name.

Some sound Korean: Kook-Bin Teriyaki. Or Thai: Thai n' Teriyaki. Or Chinese: Chung's Teriyaki. Or Hawaiian: Hoki's Teriyaki Hut, a pioneer around here. There's even plain old American: Mom's Teriyaki (and apple pie, perhaps?).

Uncounted are the many that have added teriyaki to an otherwise non-Asian menu. For instance, Poseidon's Fish and Chips on South Michigan offers . . . you guessed it. Last year part-owner Peter Chong decided, "I just wanted my customers to have chicken teriyaki," and now a third of the time they do just that.

"It's something different from a fast-food burger joint," offers Sharon Mayes, who often has teriyaki on her lunch break from Frontier Packaging. "I think it's healthier. They have vegetables, and that's more than burger joints have."

The Health Department first noticed the teriyaki boom three or four years ago. Small restaurants that had been selling something else, not always very successfully, suddenly turned teriyaki.

Then faster than you can say soy sauce, the idea branched out.

"A lot of it seems to be associated with small delis, sandwich shops or convenience stores," Driflot says. "Instead of going totally teriyaki, they'll add it. We do see that as a trend."

But one that apparently isn't afoot in other West Coast cities - at least not yet. Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco are waiting for combo latte-yaki shops, perhaps?

At the risk of saying who started the teriyaki trend, Driflot and others are inclined to credit Toshihiro Kasahara, 43.

Never heard of him?

Just think The Original Toshi's Teriyaki, now a franchise operation with 13 stores.

A native of Japan, Kasahara came to the U.S. as a college student. A friend with a Japanese restaurant asked him to help out.

Kasahara knew little about the restaurant trade, and didn't think he could master a big operation. But he realized two things: He wanted his own business, and the restaurant where he worked "sold an awful lot of teriyaki."

So in 1977 a profitable idea was born: the first Toshi's. Located near the Seattle Center, it offered full teriyaki meals for $2.10, accompanied by Toshi's own teriyaki sauce.

The crowds came - perhaps because Seattleites "were already exposed to other ethnic food" and didn't find his foreign - and eventually Kasahara opened 10 locations. But a better idea, he decided, would be to franchise for $15,000 a store, with the eventual goal of having 40.

That thought brings smiles to his fans, who routinely stop him with requests to open up in their neighborhood. "We need a Toshi's on top of Queen Anne," pleaded a woman who cornered him recently in one of his Seattle stores. "There's only pizza-to-go up there. Please!"

Today Toshi owners are a United Nations of ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Korean and Caucasian-American. "I'm glad it's many nationalities; that means more people are interested in my business and see it as an opportunity," Kasahara says.

Not that it doesn't sometimes make for amusing moments. The Sand Point Way Toshi's is owned by blue-eyed Ian McFail, who says good-naturedly: "You think of teriyaki and see Asian people in the kitchen. Customers come in here, look at me and it's like `what's wrong with this picture.' "

"You are part Japanese," Kasahara kids him.

"Yes," McFail shoots back. "My shoes."

A photographer with no restaurant experience, McFail nevertheless has found running his own place both easy and lucrative. Of course having only four basic items - grilled chicken or beef plus rice and salad - helps.

The Health Department's Driflot suspects others open teriyaki places because they make a profitable family business for newcomers not yet proficient in English.

In any case, the customers just keep arriving. "I think it's good for me. . . . better than junk food . . . and it's cheap," says Kelcie Sheriff. But the real reason she has become a regular at Woks is simpler:

"I like the rice."