clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Tycoon of Teriyaki

The unsung godfather of Seattle’s favorite comfort food, John Chung put his Korean spin on a Japanese classic

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

If you ask Seattleites to define the local style of teriyaki, their answers might include the squeak of a Styrofoam clamshell — even years after the material was banned in the city — the sweet dressing that clings to the coleslaw-like salads, and the rice so perfect it was the focus of much of the late, longtime Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger’s 1976 review of the first such shop, Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill. But Seattleites rarely discuss who’s made most of the city’s teriyaki since then.

Seattle’s homegrown fast food, similar only linguistically to the Japanese specialty of the same name, rose to popularity from the original Toshi’s shop, popping up every few blocks around town through the ’90s, and then, recently, started to disappear — a decline I chronicled for Thrillist in 2016. “Teriyaki Takes the Town — Everybody’s Making It,” declared the Seattle Times in 1992. In 2007, Jonathan Kauffman wrote “How Teriyaki Became Seattle’s Own Fast-Food Phenomenon” for the Seattle Weekly. “You can probably find one in any given strip mall,” he mentioned, listing what the menu might contain: “A culinary hodgepodge,” of teriyaki, spicy beef, yakisoba, and bibimbap, among others. And it’s that hodgepodge which provides edible clues to the story behind one of the Seattle teriyaki scene’s unsung godfathers.

While Seattle teriyaki in its classic form of charbroiled chicken thighs marinated in a sweet soy sauce is widely thought to have descended from Japanese cuisine and was developed by Japanese immigrant Toshi Kasahara, the prominence of bibimbap — a Korean specialty — hints at who actually operates many of Seattle’s teriyaki shops: Korean immigrants.

John Chung and a friend from church, taking a break from preparing teriyaki.
Chung Family
John and June Chung in the early 1980s, around the time they chose to move from Los Angeles to Seattle.
Chung Family

When John Chung moved to Seattle in 1983, he didn’t know anything about Kasahara’s shop, which by then had expanded to a second location in Green Lake. But he had already begun to dabble in what he called teriyaki in the Los Angeles area — something that shared only a name with Kasahara’s style. Where Kasahara used slower-cooking chicken thighs, Chung’s version catered to rushed lunchtime crowds with fast-cooking, thin-sliced, marinated meat that was often served on a sandwich for easy eating, instead of over Kasahara’s near-perfect rice. In the decades to come, Chung would open and then sell a half-dozen shops serving teriyaki and train an estimated hundred-plus other Korean immigrants in the business. Teriyaki in Seattle developed into its own genre, that was, as the New York Times said in 2010, “Japanese in name only,” and in fact most commonly Korean-owned and operated. Although the overwhelmingly Korean ownership has always been acknowledged in the write-ups of Seattle teriyaki, the reason behind the phenomenon has never been covered. That reason is John Chung — and this is his story.

Fresh out of the military and newly married, John Chung learned to cook during a six-month stint at a Korean culinary school. A brother-in-law in America wanted to open a restaurant, so Chung trained to help before emigrating. But that half-year of school changed the course of Chung’s life far less than a two-hour layover at Sea-Tac while moving to New York in 1977. “I looked outside and said, ‘Wow, a beautiful city.’” This is a place, he thought to himself, where kids should grow up.

The classic teriyaki plate mix of chicken, rice, and salad

Chung and his wife June moved to California and bought a former pizza shop in Cerritos. Over the course of two weeks, they took down the plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling and transformed it into C & C Teriyaki, Chung’s first foray into the genre. “I was reading in a Japanese magazine, and I saw the word,” explains Chung of why he chose teriyaki — though what he was making was similar to Korean bulgogi.

Unfortunately, it was a flop. “Nobody knew what it was,” recalls Chung’s daughter, Sylvia Kim, of their 1979 opening. The food was terrible, she admits. “We sang a lot of hymns,” Chung says, to pass the time. They eventually sold it and opened a second, far more successful shop — Magic Sandwich — where Chung came upon the idea of serving the teriyaki on bread.

But a new problem arose: Chung and June watched the children of immigrants around them start getting into trouble — gangs, drugs, and other things parents don’t approve of. Business was good enough that Chung easily found a buyer, and in July 1983, they just got in the car and drove to Seattle, he says. “No friends, no plans, no job, no house.” But they did have Chung’s teriyaki recipes.

Founded by Russian immigrant Joseph Zhovtis, Seattle-area mini-chain Elo’s Philly Grill was named for Zhovtis’s brother, who was imprisoned at the time in the Soviet Union. In November 1983, not long before Chung bought the Kent location, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that Zhovtis struggled to keep his Kirkland and Lynnwood locations afloat amid a negative perception of the Soviet Union — it had recently shot down a Korean Air Lines plane, at a time when Korean immigrants were settling en masse in the U.S., especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Starting in 1965, American immigration laws stopped targeting Asians and the first waves of Korean immigrants arrived. More than 800,000 Korean immigrants came to the U.S. between 1965 and 2001, and in the Seattle area specifically, the Korean population went from just 712 in all of King County in 1970 (mostly University of Washington students) to almost 13,000 in 1990. In 1983, the same year that the Chungs and their children, Sylvia and Howard, arrived, the city celebrated Korea Day with a prayer breakfast for the leaders of the area’s 24 Korean churches — the centers of the community at the time, and a huge influence in the Chungs’ lives.

At Elo’s, Chung changed the menu from Zhovtis’s to his own, bringing the staples that had earned him accolades in California — namely a spicy barbecue pork sandwich. The lines were long, and he expanded next door to have a seating area. But while Chung is a brilliant cook, he is also never one to miss an opportunity. “When business is good,” he explains, “Koreans want to buy it.”

While in LA, he’d seen other Korean family-owned businesses, but in Seattle at that time, many members of the Korean community had been working at Lockheed Shipyard, which went through rounds of layoffs before finally closing in 1988. A lot of his fellow immigrants came out with a little bit of savings and a hankering for businesses of their own — the 1980 census showed Koreans as having the highest rate of self-employment, nearly double that of the total population. The ready pool of buyers made it easy for Chung to sell off Elo’s for a handsome profit and take his wife for a trip home to Korea.

Upon their return, they used the money to open their own place from scratch, Woks Deli and Teriyaki in Georgetown. It fit Chung’s business plan perfectly: a little shop open just for weekday lunch, firmly in an industrial area where there were plenty of workers. Before they even finished the kitchen, Chung remembers, local workers in the community were stopping by to ask when it would open. “From the first day, people made a line out the door.” June Chung, who worked at the store’s two cash registers, complained that her hand hurt at the end of the day. But it was also the beginning of Chung’s work as the apostle of teriyaki.

Where else but in that great culinary melting pot Georgetown could you find both teriyaki beef or chicken and a Philly cheese-steak sandwich under the same roof?” asked Seattle Times writer Tom Phalen about Woks Deli in 1992. The review was printed long after the Chungs had sold it, but demonstrates their mark on the menu. “You can actually get a teriyaki cheese-steak sandwich. Plus barbecue beef and pork sandwiches, ham and cheese, the Woks’ Magic Sub and Sukiyaki Beef on rice.”

Chung’s teriyaki recipes started with a marinade of garlic, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, wine, and lemon juice. The key, he says, was that he made the marinade fresh each day, and then patiently left the meat soaking for two to three days in the cooler. Then, when it was time to cook, he understood what his customers cherished most: their time.

John Chung shared his business knowledge with his community and changed the face of Seattle teriyaki.

You can’t charbroil at lunch — it takes too long. Instead, Chung removed the bone and the fat from the chicken thigh, slicing it before it was marinated, so it would cook quickly after the order came in. For the beef, he bought big, cheap chuck roasts and sliced them like bulgogi.

The actual cooking took just under five minutes. The spicy pork, similar but with the addition of Korean pepper paste and chile powder, remains the creation he is proudest of. Anywhere with it on the menu is a Korean teriyaki shop that descended from him, he says — either directly taught or passed down through some of the hundred or more people who came through his shop to work for free for a few weeks and pick up his secret.

“When you open that Styrofoam, piping, steaming, it had that glistening, glossy, perfectly caramelized sauce on top, those fresh sprigs of green onion, and the steamed cabbage underneath, the cut mushrooms in with the teriyaki,” Sylvia Kim describes. It’s the consistency of the sauce, adds Howard Chung, that makes it different from other sauces — like that of real maple syrup: dark and runny, yet thick.

As of a few years ago, Chung estimated that the teriyaki shops of Seattle are 99 percent Korean-owned. “That started from me.” Around this time, other Koreans in their community saw Chung’s success and wanted a piece of it for themselves. The church was the great connector — the whole community went to the same churches, says Howard, “even if you weren’t Christian.” That’s just where the community existed. “It wasn’t a Toshi influence,” that spread teriyaki to Seattle: It was the Korean church.

“They came to me and said, I want to learn, I want to learn the teriyaki.” Okay, Chung said. “But mine is a different style.” While Kasahara’s version, which was by then ubiquitous around the city, was vaguely Japanese, Chung’s was purely his own. “Working people, they don’t have the time,” he said, referring to Kasahara’s cooking methods, which require a little patience. “That’s why I create teriyaki on the grill.” People could look into his open kitchen and see how quickly the meat cooked up, served almost immediately over rice or in a roll. Lunch, along with a beer, was about $10. They were bringing in $1,500 each day — and weren’t even open very many hours.

But in those few hours, there was often an extra person working in the kitchen. Maybe from church, maybe a neighbor. A former shipyard employee looking for what do next. “They learned from me,” says Chung. Sometimes he can trace the opening of restaurants to the random people who would apprentice with him: After he taught the owner of Happy Donut, the Southcenter restaurant quickly became Happy Teriyaki. “I’m open, I teach them everything.” People came to the shop, and Chung would show them how to make the sauce, and how to cook the chicken quickly.

Cooking was an easy enough skill to learn. They’d be there for a few weeks, until they learned what they needed to know, then they would go out into different neighborhoods and open a business. “It was like a cycle,” Kim says, much like Chung’s own cycle: Open the doors, do well, sell the business to the next person, and open a new one.

When Woks Deli & Teriyaki sold, the Chungs opened a shop in Redmond, but the Microsoft crowds didn’t support the business the way those in Seattle’s industrial Georgetown neighborhood did. John Chung sold it to another Korean wannabe-teriyaki entrepreneur in 1988 and went on a mission to South America with the church. When he got back, June bought a bakery, Chez Dominique, and it seemed they were out of the teriyaki business. But a few years later an opening across the street caught his eye, and like that, he was back in business with John’s Wok on Western. When his kids moved away, he tried to open a shop in Aspen (figuring if he lived somewhere cool, they’d visit), then back in Seattle at Zeena’s in 1998, where he served New York deli-style food and his son Howard Chung imported 50 stone bowls from Korea to try to open a dolsot bibimbap shop in the evenings, selling the Korean mixed-rice dish on First Hill (not a big hit at the time). Then there was a second John’s Wok in Mukilteo, where they now live. Business was tough; the Chungs fought every night about money. Eventually, June Chung found success following her son Howard into the real estate business. That was how she spotted the closing of a Thai restaurant inside the Pike Place Market — an iconic spot for a leader in Seattle teriyaki to open another business.

Chung’s final shop was a well-regarded booth in the Pike Place Market called Market Galbee. Though more overtly Korean than his previous shops, his sandwiches still earned accolades and customers — especially his mashup of grilled spicy pork, onions, and mozzarella cheese on a French roll. But in 2015, he and June were realizing that it was time to get out of the business. For eight years, they’d worked seven days a week, seven hours a day, and they were exhausted. Chung needed knee surgery and a way out. Their prayers were answered, as Kim puts it, in the form of Gerry Kingen, the founder of Red Robin, Salty’s, and now the owner of Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que. He took over the business in the Market, transforming it into Pike’s Pit, but also gave Kim an idea, leading her to buy the franchise rights to Pecos locations for northwestern Washington. But she still has other visions, too.

“Our parents, their dream was for us not to be in small business,” says Kim. The first generation opened restaurants because it was what they had to do to survive, and to help their children become the doctors and lawyers they hoped for. “They didn’t want us to have to go through it.” Now, the second generation realizes that maybe they want to achieve the same American dream their parents were after — Kim points to David Chang of Momofuku, and Howard Chung to local second-generation entrepreneurs like Jason Koh of Japonessa and Peter Pak of Oma Bap.

The Chung family, from left to right: Howard, June, John, and Sylvia Kim.

Today, Howard Chung works for John L. Scott Real Estate, and Kim has the Pecos rights. But teriyaki remains in their bones. Any time the idea of owning teriyaki shops comes up in conversation, the ambition to carry on their father’s legacy is palpable. The tacit desire to return to the peak of John Chung’s career, of their family business, seems to be driving their moves. “I think there’s still room for dad’s teriyaki, presented in a fresh way, taking the best components of what he did,” says Kim. Where her dad was focused on providing for the family, she sees room to perfect the food everybody still loves into a modern company.

They all agree that there isn’t anywhere to find Chung’s teriyaki in the area. They still eat at local shops, but nowhere lives up to what his was. “It would be awesome if teriyaki weren’t dying,” says Howard Chung. “Maybe it’s just hibernating.” They’ve seen teriyaki in its many iterations, watched their father and their community spread it throughout the city, and it gives them pause to see it fade away. So just maybe, they won’t let it happen. Even John Chung himself won’t rule anything out. “I’m too old right now,” he protests. “I don’t know, Dad,” says Kim. Everyone laughs, but Chung admits, “Maybe Sylvia has a business, and I could help. I have a lot of ideas.”

For now, the family is just happy to tell their story, to make sure their patriarch’s legacy, from an era before food blogs and Instagram posts created a digital trail of every small business, isn’t forgotten. And Chung, who cooked for thousands and thousands of people through the years, and whose recipes were dispersed around a region and carried a community through its first generation in a new country, cooks for a smaller audience now. His wife, June, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he is her caretaker. “I cooked for 40 years, now I cook three meals a day for my wife,” says Chung. “This is my job.”

Naomi Tomky is an award-winning food and travel writer and the world’s most enthusiastic eater of everything. The Seattle-based author’s first cookbook comes out in November.
Lauren Segal is a freelance photographer based in Seattle.
Edited by Rafe Bartholomew

The Eater Guide to the Pacific Northwest

The Greatest Places to Eat in Seattle’s Greatest Tourist Trap

The Eater Guide to the Pacific Northwest

An Oral History of Grunge Food

The Eater Guide to the Pacific Northwest

The 15 Essential Foods of the Pacific Northwest

View all stories in The Eater Guide to the Pacific Northwest