Critic’s Notebook

Toshi and Ezell: Two Seattle Fast-Food Legends Quietly Resurface Next Door to Each Other in Renton

If those names don’t mean anything to you, you’re eating way too high up the food chain. And look where Ezell just opened his latest chicken shack in Seattle.

By Kathryn Robinson May 21, 2012

Just look at that glistening skin. Now conjure up the golden-fried Ezell-style skin. Either way, you can’t miss.

Just before Christmas, Toshihiro Kasahara quietly opened an alarmingly bright, fanatically clean teriyaki shop on Third Street in Renton, and called it Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill. “Since 1976 Seattle’s Original Teriyaki” the sign screamed, and Seattleites with long memories couldn’t believe their eyes. Thirty-five years ago at Toshi’s Teriyaki on Roy Street in Lower Queen Anne, Kasahara introduced Seattle for the first time to the soy- and sugar-glazed grilled chicken that would revolutionize Seattle fast-food and spawn two million imitators.

I ate at the original Toshi’s all the time as a kid—my dad was an early fan—and remember well the football of sticky rice; the thin sauce, sticky and sweet and bright with ginger; the flame-grilled chicken, always moist. I remember wondering why there wasn’t one of these on every block. Soon there was, of course—within a few blocks of Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill alone, some five teriyaki joints reportedly do business. Around the region some are even named Toshi’s, thanks to Kasahara’s expansion and franchising. Over the years some of those Toshi’s have been good; some average.

But when he quit the business in 2003—none were Toshi.

Until now. “I wanted to get back in the business for my kids,” explained Kasahara by phone last week. “All three of them work here, and are eager to expand into other markets, like Spokane. They’re concerned that there are lots of places still named ‘Toshi’s’ around town, and some don’t get good reviews, so they wanted to distinguish us. That’s why we’re Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill.”

Last week one of those sons took my order with a big smile, and there it all was: the football-shaped mound of rice; the ginger-kissed sauce; the perfect chicken, fresh off the flame. Less gut-bustingly supersized than most of the newer teriyaki shops serve, at a resultingly lower pricetag of $5.35.

On our way out we were floored to see this sign on the establishment next door: “Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, owned and operated by Ezell Stephens.” That’s Ezell as in Ezell’s Famous Chicken, the fried chicken empire Stephens and his partners began in 1984, in a single chicken shack across from Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District.

Over the years the partners expanded the chain to several more outlets across greater Seattle, building its loyal following on sweet yeasty rolls, peach cobbler, and the crunchy, fragrant chicken batter Stephens tinkered with using a family recipe and that of a Texas restaurant where he once worked.

In time, differences emerged between the partners—“Their intention was to make money, mine was to change lives,” said the deeply religious Stephens by phone last week—resulting in a legal settlement a year ago this week that gave Stephens’ freedom from his partners’ priorities but separation from the restaurants that bear his name. In the settlement he got two of the original Ezell’s—Everett and Lake City—changing their names to Heaven Sent. Then without fanfare he opened his third Heaven Sent, the one in Renton, last November. Just last Friday came his fourth, on Rainier Avenue near Franklin High School, in a space he shares with another venerable long-timer, Willie’s Taste of Soul Barbecue.

“They got the name, but I got the freedom and I got the recipe,” Stephens declared when asked about the differences between Ezell’s and Heaven Sent. Though press reports say the recipes are the same, Stephens just laughed. “Ask my customers,” he said.

The small space, cozier than the original Ezell’s and offering actual tables, otherwise quacks an awful lot like its forebear: nearly identical menu, similarly thickly battered and not-quite-greaseless chicken in original and spicy flavors, similar “God is Good” tee-shirts on the staff. Was the chicken at Heaven Sent encased in a slightly thicker, slightly cracklier crust? Was the spicy slightly more spicy than at Ezell’s? These are early critical suspicions formed from, admittedly, one data point. Watch this space for more.

In the meantime, head to the 500 block of Renton’s Third Street for a double-dose of nostalgia and a glimpse of two important Seattle culinary players, both of whom check in at their establishments every day—and both of whom appreciate the legacy of the other.

“It’s amazing, these two good guys right next door to one another,” chuckled Stephens. “I never had a neighbor who was nicer than me!”

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