Rainier Beach is home to fluffy, crispy dough balls that are the perfect handheld meal

There’s a large anime-style character glued to the windows of the Rainier Beach Umami Kushi cafe. His name is Afropanman. He has a winking smile, a red stocking cap pulled down over his hair, and he’s holding a steaming okazu pan. It is inspired by the popular Japanese character Anpanman, a cartoon superhero with red bean-stuffed dough for a head who defends the world against his evil enemy, Baikinman.

“[Afropanman] was built to be a character that lives and thrives in the city and its purpose is to bring that bread to people and make them happy,” says Harold Fields, chef and owner of Umami Kushi.

Fields started making okazu pan — soft, fried dough rolls coated in crispy panko and stuffed with everything from beef curry to yakisoba noodles — in 2009, selling the rolls to cafes while working as a chef at the SkyCity restaurant at the Space Needle. Then, in 2017, the Space Needle closed for renovations, leaving Fields the choice.

With SkyCity closed, he had a chance to wonder what was next. So he decided to take the plunge and make Umami Kushi his full-time gig.

“We don’t always have that opportunity. We are where we are and we end up convincing ourselves that it is difficult to take this leap of faith,” he says.

It was “nervous” but also awesome, Fields says. He opened the store in Rainier Beach five years ago, initially operating as a commercial kitchen with a small window where people could buy okazu pan (pronounced “pon”) directly.

Then, with the COVID-19 closures, another opportunity arose, as the nearby space – a hair salon – closed and the owners of the building gifted it to Fields, giving him “the perfect space for a coffee”.

If you’ve never heard of okazu pan, you’re not alone. Fields says people in the neighborhood come by every week saying that even though they shopped at the nearby convenience store for years, they never knew Umami Kushi was there.

To explain what pan is, Fields likes to simplify things by saying, “Just eat one, don’t worry about it.”

Fields first fell in love with the take-out snack in Japan in 2005. The buns — usually filled with a rich beef curry — are sold everywhere from gas stations and grocery stores to bakeries.

“It was a unique, fun and convenient snack. I loved it,” he says.

He ate them on every trip back to Japan, and when he started making them in Seattle in 2009, he developed the toppings — finding that if people didn’t know what okazu pan was, they might have a connection with a garnish. Now the menu features everything from smoked salmon to Cajun chicken.

Despite being fried, the batter is light and almost delicate. The rise creates a puff of air between the filling and the bread, but it’s not like these are underfilled; they are indeed a perfect bite. Because they’re designed to be eaten on the go, Fields says hot is the optimal temperature — you can buy them from the store or a coffee shop and keep them for up to five hours at room temperature before devouring them.

I took my assortment of casseroles—lentils, tofu kimchi, mofongo, beef bulgogi, and Cajun chicken—back to North Seattle and decided to give them a quick toast in my toaster oven. Fields also recommends putting them in the oven for a few minutes and has heard from customers that an air fryer works great for reheating.

I found they didn’t even really need reheating – I enjoyed the tofu kimchi sitting at one of the little tables in the shop and it was piping hot. However you eat them, these casseroles are great. Each flavor was distinctive and had the perfect consistency. Not too soupy to make a messy meal, but not too dry either. The bread is airy, but hearty. Slightly sweet, but with a wonderful crispy finish thanks to all that panko, which manages to stay firmly stuck to the bun and not in your lap or face. They range from $5.50 to $6 each and are about the size of a crushed softball.

You can also find Umami Kushi’s pots at Métier Brewing in the Central District, Uwajimaya, Seattle Fish Guys, Espresso Vivace Alley 24, All City Coffee, The Station, Resistencia, and Coffeeholic. But the cafe on Rainier is the only place to find the new flavor that Fields is tinkering with.

Plus, there are fresh donuts dusted with powdered sugar on the weekends (the cafe is open Wednesday through Sunday) and an impressive assortment of locally made condiments (including my current hyper fix, the Kari Kari Chilli Crisp ).

Fields says he’ll be releasing new casserole flavors over the next week, but even with all the different flavors on offer, his favorites are mofongo, kabocha squash and Cajun chicken.

Umami Kushi 9am-3pm Wednesday to Sunday; 9099 Seward Park Ave. S., Seattle; 206-723-1887, umamikushi.com

If you’re looking for something else unexpected while in Rainier Valley, look across Rainier Avenue to Paranormal Pie.

It’s a small storefront (right next to the Creamy Cone Cafe) offering several styles of pizzas, gyros, pastas and salads. There’s no seating inside, but you can order delivery if you can’t pick it up.

The pizza menu is a mix of smaller pies in a variety of styles. There are classic New York-style pies and Chicago-style deep-dishes, but I was drawn to the Mediterranean-style thin-crust pizzas on the menu.

While I loved the Kafta Kabob Pie ($11.95) with its spice-rich ground beef and onion topping (served with a side of creamy, dreamy hummus), my absolute favorite pizza is the unexpected Greek Gyro Pie ($14.95). It sounds like the brainchild of a stoned frat boy, but it’s downright delicious. Eight slices of goodness – big enough for two – with a thin almost crispy crust, strips of gyro meat, red onion, green pepper, chunks of feta and a side of tzatziki sauce for drizzling or dipping. My only recommendation is to ask for some extra tzatziki and don’t feel bad if you don’t want to share.

paranormal pie 11am-9pm daily; 9435 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-721-7777, paranormalpiemenu.com

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