MILL CREEK — Smooth jazz plays in the background. Blue flames leap under a red skillet.
In the narrow galley kitchen, a wiry man with muscular forearms moves swiftly between a hot grill, cutting board and giant rice cooker.
Armed with tongs, basting brush and a very sharp knife, Toshihiro Kasahara dishes up teriyaki as if he’s back in 1976, when he opened his first shop.
What’s up with that?
Kasahara, 73, is the guy often credited for making teriyaki the iconic fast food of Seattle, as cheesesteaks are in Philadelphia.
Media outlets have dubbed him the godfather of Seattle-style teriyaki, the titan. He prefers to be called Toshi, the name of the first place he started 46 years ago in Seattle.
Since 2013, he has carried on his char-grilled legacy in a tiny takeout in Mill Creek at 16212 Bothell Everett Highway.
Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill is tucked behind an unpretentious doorway in a strip plaza with fro-yo, gyro and Thai eateries, across the parking lot from Safeway.
Many people don’t know it’s there. Those who do keep coming back.
It took six months of prodding for Kasahara to agree to a Daily Herald story about him. That’s why I’m writing this instead of the new food writer, Taylor Goebel, who comes from Delaware, where people eat scrapple, a mush of cornmeal, spices and pig scraps, everything but the oink. (No wonder Taylor moved here.)
Kasahara doesn’t advertise.
“We’re not really looking for new customers,” he said.
“I don’t sound like a business owner,” he said. “I just want to do a good job for the regular customers.”
Kasahara speaks softly, smiles demurely and moves with a blurry whirl of precision. While juggling multiple orders, he instinctively knows without looking when it’s time to stir, flip, chop or box up.
Everything is cooked to order.
“When people call and we have to let them know it takes 45 minutes or an hour, if they say, ‘Forget it,’ in a way I’m kind of relieved,” he said. “I don’t want to get rushed. I want to do a good job.”
His friendly longtime assistant, Susie, greets customers, rings up orders, answers the phone and lends a hand in the kitchen.
On the waiting area wall are photos of his first teriyaki shop in Seattle and the red, modified “Toshi’s” Datsun 280Z he raced for three seasons a long time ago.
Teriyaki is an alternative to meat-and-potatoes that is affordable, filling and basic. It’s a go-to comfort food, and I go to it a lot. There are dozens of teriyaki joints in the county. No two are alike.
Brad Hoaré, a regular customer from Lynnwood, drives five miles for Toshi’s spicy chicken.
“I was in the area one time and I decided to try it and 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 the usual is.”
Toshi’s has five main menu items, served with rice and cabbage slaw: Chicken, $10.50. Red-hot spicy chicken, $11. Beef, $11.50. Chicken and beef combo, for those having trouble deciding, $11.25. Chicken katsu (deep-fried), $11.25. Other items are smaller bites in a bowl, egg rolls and gyoza.
Bottles of Toshi’s signature teriyaki sauce are sold at the store ($4) and online so you can DIY at home.
I tried. He does it way better.
Is it the love he puts into it?
“If I tell you the secret then the secret is not secret anymore,” he said.
The only hint was something about “temperature control.”
The sauce recipe also is a secret.
Growing up on a farm in Japan, Kasahara spent a lot of time as a kid in the kitchen with his grandmother. He came to Portland State University to wrestle and as a student competed nationally. He moved to Seattle to work in a Japanese restaurant with a big menu that included teriyaki and other items.
He wanted to be his own boss and keep it simple and economical. He opened Toshi’s Teriyaki on March 2, 1976, near Seattle Center with a menu of five items. A plate of chicken teriyaki was $1.85 and the chicken-beef combo, $2.10.
“I was the first one to specialize in teriyaki,” he said.
“It started slow,” he said.
A review from a Seattle Times restaurant critic sent business soaring.
“People checked me out,” Kasahara said.
That inspired others to open mom-and-pop shops.
“When people see somebody doing a good business, they want to start the same thing, right? That’s what happened,” he said.
Over the years, he’d sell a shop and reopen another, mainly in King County. He also sold about 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 that was one of the first franchises recently closed. A sign on the door says a Mediterranean restaurant will be opening soon.
The Mill Creek Toshi’s is the only one with his formula, unless you want to travel to San Francisco, where his son, Taichi, runs a Seattle’s Original Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill stand at farmers markets in the Bay area. His son came up with the slaw recipe, another family secret.
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.
He 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. “By 11, I get a little tired. But that’s my duty. I want to do this for many more years.”
Is Kasahara happy to see all the teriyaki places that he helped put on the food map?
“Yes. My fault,” he said. “If they can make a living, that’s good for them.”