Eating Rainier: Toshio’s Teriyaki

by Laura and Robert MacDonald

Authors’ Note: Systems. Follow a particular path around any supermarket. Park only on certain streets. Purchase the same kind of soap repeatedly.  When confronted with a maze of possibilities, sometimes the best tactic is to always turn left. 

That’s how we feel about this project, Eating Rainier.  Visiting restaurants is usually an arbitrary decision, but we’ll be taking personal preference out of the equation.  North to south, from I-90 to the Renton city limits, eating at each cafe, food truck, and restaurant on Rainier Avenue in turn.  The main drag through the heart of the South End presents a ribbon of dinning curiosity. Vietnamese, Latino, Italian, East African. Dive bars to wine bars. 

The great French Archaeologist of the stone-age Abbe Breuil spent a lifetime cataloging and categorizing every flint, every bone, every stone in every stratum from Altamira to Lascaux.  His careful reproductions of the cave paintings of Western Europe were so thorough, so definitive, that he came to be called ‘The Pope of Prehistory’ by his peers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Yet not until the end of his career did he offer his opinion of what they meant. “Without the artistic temperament, with its adoration of beauty, no great art could exist. The artist could not live nor found a school where his passion for beauty could be transmitted through space and time.”

By following Rainier systematically and digging through the diverse, tempting eateries that dot her path, what will we find? Beauty? Art? A decent plate of Ham and Eggs?

Toshio’s Teriyaki (1706 Rainier Ave S Seattle, WA 98144 / Corner of Massachusetts and Rainier)

If you’re traveling to the Rainier Valley for a visit to the Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park, and find yourself looking for some eats, you could do worse than Toshio’s Teriyaki.

With a huge sign advertising its name and a parking lot on its north side, Toshio’s is hard to miss and easy to patronize.

Though its interior was remodeled in the last couple of years, it’s a little hard to tell upon entry. But Toshio’s is a working class teriyaki joint that works. When you walk in don’t be surprised to find yourself standing in a long line that barely allows you inside the door. The lunch rush here is real. But don’t worry. The line moves quickly.

Which means you won’t have a lot of time to sort through the menu, but thankfully you won’t need it. There is classic teriyaki, chicken, beef, pork, short ribs, (and a little shout out to the Northwest) salmon, all served with rice and salad. If you’re not in the mood for teriyaki, they offer the noodle dishes you’ll expect, like Udon.

The only spirits on the menu, or perhaps, the holy kind. The wall beside the soda fountain is adorned by a hanging with the words “God Bless You” written atop followed by nineteen translations.

The writings are all done by hand, as if whenever a visitor found their language missing they asked for its inclusion. There was something very South End to this decor, a warm reminder of the polyglot community that has grown up in the Rainier Valley.

The rice can be ordered with or without teriyaki sauce. Ordered with, your balls of Japanese sticky rice will come nicely covered, but not drenched. The sauce has that familiar flavor of soy, sweet and smoke that makes teriyaki so appealing to the American palate, raised on barbeque.

That first hungry bite is always like a reunion with an old friend who returns from a long trip abroad a little different than they left.

The chicken is cooked with the skin on, which provides that fatty richness we enjoy but probably know we shouldn’t. Each dish is served with a side of iceberg lettuce covered in a sweet and sour cream dressing that may make you wonder why we gave up on that vegetable for kale?

Unfortunately, the seating is not generous. You are likely to rub elbows with other customers. But the clientele all seem to recognize the shared situation and will usually shuffle and reshuffle so everyone gets a seat.

About half the place’s seating is located at a long red bench along the north wall pleasantly facing a bank of windows so you can get some sun and watch Rainier Avenue while lunching.

Featured image by by Laura  and Robert MacDonald