Crackhead Teriyaki

This summer I have been volunteering as a mentor at Youth In Focus. My mentee, Malek, is in the intermediate class and is heading into his senior year of high school.

Following a photo shoot at Seattle’s world-famous Pike Place Market, I asked if he wanted to grab a bite to eat. It was about 5 PM and we had been shooting in the bright afternoon sun for over 2 hours. I figured I could go for something cool and refreshing so I headed toward TB’s favorite dining spot, Crepe de France. Malek followed. As we neared the restaurant, I thought, “Wait, this is a good rapport-building opportunity,” and decided to see if Malek had a favorite dining spot that might expand my horizons.

When asked Malek’s face lit up and he said, “Yeah, [inaudible] Teriyaki!” I heard the “teriyaki” part but didn’t bother having him repeat the part I had missed. Teriyaki is teriyaki, right? He said it was about 2 blocks away so we begin walking up Pike, crossed 1st and I saw the restaurant up ahead on the corner of 2nd & Pike. The restaurant looked rundown from the outside and there was neon sign hanging in the window that simply read “Teriyaki.” I became very curious about what I had missed when Malek told me the name earlier.

As we approached this mysterious, hole-in-the-wall, Teriyaki joint, I asked Malek, “What’s the name of this place again?” He turned with a devilish grin and said, “We call it Crackhead Teriyaki.” I must have given him the wha-choo-talkin-bout-Willis look as he quickly clarified. Supposedly, this teriyaki dive got its name from the large number of Seattle crackheads that once loitered around its perimeter. The crackheads have long since gone but the name remains as some kind of twisted term of endearment. Yummy!

I was determined to use this as a bonding opportunity so inside we went. Stepping across the threshold, my first impression of this gastronomical nightmare was, “Wow!” — not in a good way. Surely, some Seattle food safety agency had overlooked this place or was getting kickbacks for ignoring the dozen or so violations readily apparent to my untrained eye. The place was filthy, top to bottom. A couple of the staff looked like they were recruited from the ranks of the standers-by that earned the establishment its name. Let’s just say the clientele looked exactly as one might expect of people dining at a place locals call Crackhead Teriyaki. Lyrics from the Ice Cube song, “Once Upon a Time in the Projects,” sprang to mind. (If you’ve never heard the song, read this short paragraph describing its subject matter.)

To add insult to injury, the food wasn’t cheap. $6.75 for a plate of rice with a few chopped up chicken thighs. I begrudgingly paid for our meal, sat down in the filthy dining area, and began eating. There were teenage girls nearby practicing how to use various curse words and a couple of guys we suburbanites would categorize as The Element periodically eyeing us and our camera equipment.

Despite feeling out of my element, I found the people more comforting than the food. The eastside of Seattle is sanitized to the point real people like those at the restaurant with real problems are virtually non-existent. It was eerie experiencing some of the old things from my childhood through the eyes of my adulthood. While environments like those are no longer my reality they are very real for many others. I had come full circle but this time as an outsider.

Symbolically, Malek had taken me back to a place I would not have otherwise gone on my own accord. In that moment, over that meal, inside that establishment, mentor became mentee.