If you blink while passing by, you might miss it. If you didn’t blink, you still might even miss it. The gray and aging exterior of Tsukushinbo in Seattle’s Old Japantown blends into the building and the restaurant’s lack of a sign does not help. But pass by during a popular lunch rush (such as one Friday afternoon when they have their “special ramen day”) and you can’t ignore the long lines of people waiting to be seated in the tiny restaurant.
If you’re lucky and only have to wait about an hour in line, you’ll enter a small, laid back dining area that has shown definite signs of age and disregard with décor that hasn’t changed in decades. But once you’re seated and get your meal, you’re reminded of why you waited.
“People definitely come here for the food,” said Marin Caccam, the server and general manager of Tsukushinbo, a family-owned and family-run business operating in the International District since the early 1990s. Caccam’s parents started the business around 18 years ago and now work in the kitchen while their son, Caccam’s brother, Shota, works as the sushi chef.
“My brother’s sushi presentation is extravagant. He puts so much effort into it and went through a lot of training to make what he’s making right now. And the food in the kitchen is so traditional and authentic that it’s so hard to get nowadays,” said Caccam.
Like the décor, Tsukushinbo’s food and values have not changed much since they opened. Caccam’s family embraces tradition, fresh food and sticks to their own way of doing things.
While Tsukushinbo has been around for awhile, a Thai pop-up shop called Little Uncle opened recently in the Central District neighborhood and proves a business can still thrive in these times.
Started by Wiley Frank and his wife Poncharee Kounpungchart “PK” in late December 2011, Little Uncle is a food stand serving dishes made everyday in the homes and back alleys of Thailand.
With a small kitchen space, no seating, and no dining area, Little Uncle was based off of “shophouse restaurants” in Thailand, which is not necessarily street food, but restaurants that have the family residence right behind the business.
It’s a literal “hole in the wall.” Customers walk up, order their food, and take their eats elsewhere to dine.
“It kind of plays a role into the food that we make,” said Frank. “If we had a large grand restaurant I think it might change the way our food comes out and the way people might enjoy it.”
The quaint thing about the experience, other than its intimacy, is that food is delivered wrapped in brown paper and twine — reminiscent of the way food is served in some Thai villages.
The Little Uncle menu only has five dishes Wiley and Kounpungchart have perfected.
“We don’t feel like we need to have a really large expensive menu,” explained Frank. “Our pad thai is pad thai that some guys were making in PK’s hometown for 20 years and he told us all the secrets.”
To differentiate themselves from other Thai restaurants in the area, Little Uncle uses organic and local ingredients as well as homemade sauces in their dishes. “Our pad thai is sublime and it’s simple. That’s kind of how we approach all of our dishes here. There’s a reason why we put each ingredient into each dish.”
While Frank believes “it would be nice to have 20 seats and a few more feet in the kitchen someday,” Tsukushinbo’s Caccam does not have any interest in expanding.
“We’re not going to expand,” she said. “We’re not going to move. We’re going to stay like this. We’ve been like this for 18 years so we’re going to keep it like this forever. We like how we’re kind of hidden.”
Both restaurants do not advertise but are not worried with the help from loyal customers and word of mouth. Hidden gems don’t stay hidden for long when word of mouth of a great restaurant spreads like wildfire.
Frank said, “People always ask us what our advertising budget is. We don’t have one. We just serve good food.”
His answer is about as simple as the way he serves food: traditionally, freshly, and the way he chooses to. After all, you don’t eat ambience.
Tsukushinbo is located at 515 South Main Street, Seattle, WA 98104. Little Uncle is located at 1509 East Madison Street, Seattle, WA 98122.