20th century Seattle was built by Asian immigrants and refugees who escaped the violence and disruption America brought to their homelands. Teriyaki is their sturdy legacy.
Teriyaki shops tend to be lit by fluorescent lights and linoleum floors. The tables have formica tops. There is usually a soda machine or a fridge where you can get cans and bottles of Coke or Pepsi or whatever. Sometimes they have a carafe or boiler of complimentary black tea.
The person who takes your order at the counter, off a numbered menu that hangs on the wall behind them, sometimes with pictures, is usually a middle-aged woman of Asian descent. She often will have an accent. I think a lot of the people who own and work in teriyaki places are Korean immigrants, but I’m not sure.
I’ve never asked, because the woman at the counter will usually be brusque but cordial asking one word questions: “Spicy? Salad? Here?” and shout your order through the service window to the cook at the griddle. When your order is up, she will shout the number—either the menu number or your ticket number—and you come up and get it. If it is a to go order, she will put the container in the bag with sauces, napkins, and utensils, and tie it with impressive speed and skill.
Chicken teriyaki is comfort food for me. I would get it all the time in high school, which when I started to get lunch for myself. I would go to the teriyaki place on 12th, almost at Cherry, across the street from SU.
Teriyaki as served in Seattle has five main components:
- Sauce: Teriyaki sauce. You probably know what it is, but if you don’t, I guess it’s Japanese-American barbecue sauce. It’s sweet, not at all spicy, and derived from soy sauce. The stuff you buy in a bottle in a store, like Veri Veri Teriyaki or Kikkoman Teriyaki is not like Seattle teriyaki sauce. The bottled stuff has the consistency of soy sauce. This teriyaki is thick, like gravy or Kansas City barbecue sauce.
- Meat: Usually chicken, but sometimes beef or pork, cooked on a flat top but somehow with grill marks. The chicken is skin-on, but tender on the inside. It probably comes from a factory farm/is steroidal/unsustainable. It is slathered with teriyaki sauce.
- Rice: A scoop of white rice. Hopefully two.
- Salad: Iceberg lettuce salad, sometimes part of a mix with shredded red cabbage and carrot. There’s miso-sesame, ranch, or thousand island dressing on top. Hopefully the miso.
- Packaging: Ideally, chicken teriyaki (teriyaki chicken is another dish) comes in a three-compartment styrofoam tray placed inside a plastic bag, with wooden chopsticks and/or plastic fork, paper napkin, and sauce packets. The bag is tied tightly closed, with an impenetrable knot, by the server at the counter. Some teriyaki places have started to comply with the biodegradable packaging ordinance. Others are admirably resolute in their use of petroleum products.
Teriyaki places have several kinds of meat and sometimes will serve it over yakisoba, which is fine, but also unnecessary.
When teriyaki is served, all the components are put in the box. The cook takes ladle filled with 4-6 ounces of teriyaki sauce from a crock pot or a vat of it on the flat top and pours it over the chicken and rice.
I like to order my sauce on the side, because the sweetness bothers me if the whole dish is doused in it. That way I can pour a more reasonable amount on the chicken, along with soy sauce and sriracha. (The first time I ever had sriracha was on teriyaki, circa 2005.) The sweet savory and spicy mix works for me. Also, the rice becomes soggy and over-sweet if it sits in the teriyaki sauce for too long.
Teriyaki might be one of those Seattle things that are going away. Some places in the middle of the city that I used to go to, like the one on 12th on Capitol Hill, are closed and replaced.
Teriyaki has yet to be gentrified, re-imagined, or upscaled. It’s always functional, generally delicious, but never chic.
Teriyaki is a reminder, to those of us that were here, that this town used to be as quiet, dingy, and damp as the strip malls where you eat it.
Still, I don’t think teriyaki will ultimately go anywhere. It’s a food that will fit the city no matter what happens; teriyaki will always be good when it’s raining and dark, you get off the bus, and you’re hungry.