“I never eat teriyaki.”
This is the food equivalent of the common Seattle “I don’t own a TV” mating call.
Well, I would never miss Gossip Girl, and I eat teriyaki. Unironically. (OK, I’m not sure how you eat lunch ironically, but I know people who could pull it off.) When John T. Edge called us out in The New York Times earlier this year as a city of furtive teriyaki noshers, he had my number. So I’m waving a (boneless) chicken leg and shouting from the rooftops: “Teriyaki is Seattle’s favorite lunch, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of!” While everyone else was eating bland chicken breasts, we stuck to richer thighs, the standard order at every teriyaki place. And the combination of soy sauce and sugar is classic. We’ve just reduced it (literally) to its purest form.
You’ve never eaten teriyaki? Let’s go on a tour of some of my favorite teriyaki shops and I’ll show you how it’s done.
Teriyaki Madness, across from the Group Health campus on Capitol Hill, features the classic teriyaki ambience: bright lights, big photos of food. Order the special ($6.29): a double serving of dark-meat chicken, extra rice and cucumber salad. Get it to stay or take it to the benches in the Group Health courtyard. Either way, you’ll be surrounded by people in scrubs, guaranteeing that if you choke there will be a half-dozen Heimlich-trained medical personnel within range. Important: If you get takeout from any teriyaki place, don’t forget to apply Sriracha hot sauce before leaving the premises. Eating a lot of Sriracha is what teriyaki is all about.
The cucumber salad is Teriyaki Madness’ secret weapon: crisp cucumber and rice vinegar and little else. My daughter and I often go there for lunch, and this is the only “salad” in the world she’ll eat.
Nasai Teriyaki, on the Ave, got me through college. Back then, it was dim and dingy; new owners have brightened up the place, perhaps overly so. The regular teriyaki sauce is fine, but Nasai’s spicy specialities are the way to go. The spicy chicken ($6.25) is lacquered with a garlicky, red, hot sauce that somehow pairs perfectly with the bland white dressing on the iceberg salad (try to get chicken, rice and salad in the same bite). The hot chicken ($6.75) sounds like the spicy’s comely twin but is actually a chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry with an addictive thin sauce and no salad. Technically, it’s not teriyaki, but, technically, it’s awesome.
If your teriyaki place has Chinese food on the menu, as many do, avoid it—not the teriyaki, but the Chinese food. It’s sure to be gloppy and bland. They’re trying to appeal to diners who, like me, sometimes have severe General Tso cravings. You know how even bad Chinese food is good? There are limits.
But Korean food? Go for it. Most teriyaki places are Korean owned, and I’ve had perfectly good bibimbap (rice with meat, vegetables and egg) and bulgogi (sweet-soy-sauce-marinated beef with scallions) at teriyaki joints—especially on the Ave. Nasai’s bulgogi, for example, is great, and it wasn’t on the menu when I went to the University of Washington. Kids today, with their bulgogi!
Before we proceed, be warned: For any given teriyaki place, there’s another one with the same name in another neighborhood that may or may not have the same owner and same food. There are other Nasais and other Teriyaki Madnesses in town. At each of them, there is probably a guy who looks like me (you know, the one you’d cast as “generic aging hipster”