Teriyaki pioneer: Toshi from Mill Creek created our regional dish

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MILL CREEK – Soft jazz plays in the background. Blue flames leap under a red frying pan.

In the cramped American kitchen, a nervous man with muscular forearms moves quickly between a hot grill, a cutting board and a giant rice cooker.

Armed with tongs, a basting brush and a very sharp knife, Toshihiro Kasahara prepares teriyaki as if he were back in 1976, when he opened his first shop.

What’s up with that?

Kasahara, 73, is the guy often credited with making teriyaki Seattle’s iconic fast food, like cheesesteaks are in Philadelphia.

The media dubbed him the godfather of Seattle teriyaki, the titan. He prefers to be called Toshi, the name of the first place he opened 46 years ago in Seattle.

Since 2013, he’s been carrying on his grilling legacy at a small restaurant in Mill Creek at 16212 Bothell Everett Highway.

Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill is tucked away behind an unassuming gate in a strip plaza with fro-yo, gyro, and Thai restaurants, across from the Safeway parking lot.

A lot of people don’t know it’s there. Those who do come back.

Toshihiro Kasahara cooks a meal for a customer at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

It took Kasahara six months to accept a Daily Herald story about him. That’s why I’m writing this instead of new food writer, Taylor Goebel, who’s from Delaware, where people eat junk, cornmeal porridge, spices and leftover pork, everything but the snout. (No wonder Taylor moved here.)

Kasahara does not advertise.

“We’re not really looking for new customers,” he said.

Wait what?

“I don’t look like a business owner,” he said. “I just want to do a good job for regular customers.”

Kasahara speaks softly, smiles wisely, and moves with a blurry swirl of precision. While juggling multiple commands, he instinctively knows without looking when it’s time to stir, flip, chop or wrap.

Everything is cooked to order.

“When people call and we have to let them know it’s 45 minutes or an hour, if they say, ‘Forget it’, in a way, I’m a little relieved,” he said. . “I don’t want to rush. I want to do a good job.

His friendly, longtime assistant, Susie, greets customers, takes orders, answers the phone and helps out in the kitchen.

A customer holds the door for Rick Cote as he leaves with food for himself and his family at Toshi's Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A customer holds the door for Rick Cote as he leaves with food for himself and his family at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

On the waiting room wall are pictures of his first teriyaki shop in Seattle and the red, modified “Toshi” Datsun 280Z he rode three seasons long ago.

Teriyaki is an affordable, nutritious, and basic alternative to meat and potatoes. It’s a comfort food, and I go there a lot. There are dozens of teriyaki joints in the county. No two are the same.

Brad Hoaré, a regular Lynnwood customer, drives five miles for Toshi’s Spicy Chicken.

“I was in the area once and decided to give it a try and I haven’t stopped. It’s so good,” Hoaré said. “They’re on speed dial. … Once I tell them it’s me, they know exactly what it is than usual.

Toshi’s offers five main courses, served with rice and coleslaw: Chicken, $10.50. Red spicy chicken, $11. Beef, $11.50. Chicken and beef combo, for those who can’t decide, $11.25. Chicken katsu (fried), $11.25. Other items are small bites in a bowl, spring rolls and gyoza.

A bottle of Toshi's signature teriyaki sauce is on sale at Toshi's Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A bottle of Toshi’s signature teriyaki sauce is on sale at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bottles of Toshi’s signature teriyaki sauce are sold at the store ($4) and online for you to DIY at home.

I tried. He does it much better.

Is it the love he puts into it?

“If I tell you the secret, then the secret is no longer a secret,” he said.

The only clue was about “temperature control”.

The recipe for the sauce is also a secret.

Growing up on a farm in Japan, Kasahara spent a lot of time as a child in the kitchen with her grandmother. He came to Portland State University to wrestle and as a student competed nationally. He moved to Seattle to work at a Japanese restaurant with a large menu that included teriyaki and other dishes.

He wanted to be his own boss and keep it simple and economical. He opened Toshi’s Teriyaki on March 2, 1976, near the Seattle Center with a five-course menu. A teriyaki chicken plate was $1.85 and the chicken-beef combo was $2.10.

“I was the first to specialize in teriyaki,” he said.

And?

“It started slowly,” he said.

A meal is ready to go after being prepared at Toshi's Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A meal is ready to go after being prepared at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A review by a Seattle Times restaurant reviewer boosted business.

“People checked me out,” Kasahara said.

This inspired others to open family shops.

“When people see someone getting a good deal, they want to start the same thing, right? That’s what happened,” he said.

Over the years he sold one store and reopened another, mostly in King County. He also sold a dozen franchises. They bore his name but were independently operated, so owners could craft their own menus. A Toshi’s at 3101 Hoyt Ave. in Everett which was one of the first franchises recently closed. A sign on the door indicates that a Mediterranean restaurant will be opening soon.

Only Mill Creek Toshi’s has his formula, unless you want to head to San Francisco, where his son, Taichi, runs a stand of Seattle’s Original Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill at Bay Area Farmers’ Markets. His son invented the coleslaw recipe, another family secret.

Toshihiro Kasahara works the grill at Toshi's Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Toshihiro Kasahara works the grill at Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in Mill Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Kasahara took a short break before opening the Mill Creek site nine years ago.

“They were asking a reasonable price. I said, ‘Well, OK, I’ll take it.’ I had nothing else to do, so why not? he said.

It commutes from Bellevue to serve food four days a week, Tuesday through Friday.

“I usually stay until 11 o’clock. That’s why I wanted to close for three days,” he said. “At 11 o’clock, I’m a little tired. But it is my duty. I want to do this for many more years.

Is Kasahara happy to see all the teriyaki places he’s helped put on the food map?

“Yes. My fault,” he said. “If they can make a living, that’s good for them.”

Andrea Brown: [email protected]; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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