Food & Culture

Can Our Beloved Teriyaki Joints Survive New Seattle?

Culinary and technological evolution threatens Seattle's signature fast food.

By Knute Berger July 24, 2017


I recently got a call from some East Coast TV producers who wanted to know the state of teriyaki in Seattle.

Even most locals don’t know that chicken teriyaki first gained popularity here. It is our invisible fast food contribution. Since the mid-1970s, they’ve popped up everywhere.

Toshi’s Teriyaki, a chain now reduced to one location in Mill Creek, was the first, opening on south Queen Anne. After that, they proliferated. That sweet sticky sauce was a hit.

Many food writers have written about the phenomenon in the last decade or so. The New York Times declared, “In Seattle, teriyaki is omnipresent, the closest this city comes to a Chicago dog.”

I’ve noticed that teriyaki joints have expanded their offerings greatly these days. It used to be you got a lump of white rice, an indifferent salad and grilled chicken marinated in sweet, sugary soy sauce and other spices. Now you can get a full Asian meal, from bibimbap to hum bow.

I was asked what my favorite teriyaki joint was and I realized that most of us don’t go around town searching for the best teriyaki—we grab what’s closest. It’s fast food, convenient, something you can tell yourself is somewhat healthier than a burger or BBQ ribs, not that it really is.

A good teriyaki place is the one on the way home. Maybe it’s in a neighborhood strip mall, with a couple of parking spots out front so you can get in and out fast.

There are some things to avoid or prefer, though. Stir fried teriyaki isn’t as good as grilled. Some places have good salad dressing. One place on the Eastside I hear about puts its lettuce leaves in a plastic bag, like a biohazard. Not appetizing. Still, I’ve never heard of someone going to a teriyaki place for the salads.

As a single dad, I used to feed my kids from Toshi’s in Kirkland, and before that I frequented Yak’s Teriyaki (formerly Yak’s Deli) in Fremont, which seems to be hanging in there despite gentrification. A spot I’ve been to recently is Rainier Teriyaki, across from where the old Rainer Valley Chubby and Tubby used to be. Try their smoky pork teriyaki.

Teriyaki joints are still around, but I sense change coming. Food trucks and taco buses are a new form of competition. Plus, lots of little strip malls and cheap-rent locations are being razed for redevelopment. They’ve got competition from other foods too. Next to Yak’s, for example, there’s a pho shop that sells banh mi sandwiches, vermicelli bowls and kogi tacos.

Another threat is home delivery. As Amazon and other services expand, who needs a parking spot? You can have dinner brought to your door. The brave new world of expanded choice and ordering by app might hold challenges for that teriyaki joint down the street.

Or maybe, now so entrenched, they will endure despite fads and fashions.

Join The Must List

Seattle's best events delivered to your inbox

Follow Us

Pastry: An Affair to Remember

Pastry: An Affair to Remember

Chef Ewald Notter of Dote Coffee Bar makes it easy to fall in love with pastry and chocolate

Most romances unfold in predictable ways. An invitation for lunch, where you share sandwiches in a loud café, silently wishing your bread was crisper, but never giving up on the idea that one day it might be. An awkward laugh as your fingers touch while you both reach across the table for sugar in that…

Mix It Up. Try old-school cocktails this holiday season

Mix It Up. Try old-school cocktails this holiday season

These 10 drinks may not be on the menu at your local bar, but all pack a punch as well as some colorful history

Editor’s note: A version of this story previously appeared in “Seattle” magazine. Impress your guests this holiday season with these 10 concoctions from a vintage bar guide from Glenn Shaw Creations – supposedly from the 1950s – found in an antique shop in Olympia a few years back. Keep in mind that these drinks may…

Sip, Slurp, Celebrate at Frank's Oyster House

Sip, Slurp, Celebrate at Frank’s Oyster House

Let’s be Frank about Champagne

The best bubbles in Washington state may very well be found at an East Coast-style restaurant in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. That, at least, is the opinion of The Champagne Bureau, USA, which has named Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor as one of the top 10 bars and restaurants in the nation for the quality…

Seattle Buildings Just Let It Bee

Seattle Buildings Just Let It Bee

There’s a buzz happening throughout the region

You know the Smith Tower as Seattle’s original skyscraper. You know that the 108-year-old, 38-floor tower was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi.   You may not be aware that the 22nd floor is now home to an apiary containing a thriving colony of thousands of honeybees. It is one of several apiaries located…