Taste Tickler, with its paint-chipped awning, sits on the corner of Broadway and 14th, a strip home to many Portland institutions: Milo’s City Cafe, with its roster of regulars and brioche French toast; the yellow bungalow home to Frank’s Noodle House, featuring hand-pulled noodles and parcel-like dumplings; the pastry cases at Helen Bernhard Bakery, filled with colossal cinnamon rolls and knobby muffins. Taste Tickler is no exception: Those who grew up in Northeast Portland almost certainly made some sort of pilgrimage to its dining room, with its midcentury linoleum and vinyl chairs.
These days, there are no customers inside Taste Tickler. Like so many others, the sandwich shop sports a walk-up window built into its facade, flanked by window displays that behave like miniature museums: faded photographs of teenagers from the ’90s and 2000s, college kids in togas, teens flashing peace signs next to Taste Tickler shirts, young employees in aprons.
For many, Taste Tickler is just a sub shop, a place to order the Famous Tickler, something like an Italian sub on soft, plush bread. But Taste Tickler is also one of the only spots in town where your egg salad sandwich can come with a side of kimchi, where the steak Philly’s thinly sliced beef is cooked in soy sauce and garlic. In its 50 years open, Taste Tickler has slowly incorporated more teriyaki-shop staples, but under its latest owner, Andy Kim, the restaurant has added a wider swath of Korean dishes, to the benefit of its customers. It has become one of the most distinctive — but unpretentious — sandwich shops in a town known for places like Lardo and Sammich, the unsung hero of Portland’s deli scene.
Long before Andy Kim began running Taste Tickler, the deli was one of Portland’s quintessential teriyaki sub shops, a generally unacknowledged food tradition endemic to the Pacific Northwest. To trace the origins of teriyaki subs, you have to look north: The development of Pacific Northwestern teriyaki is something of a mash-up of Japanese and Korean culinary traditions, which came together in Seattle. Toshi Kasahara opened Toshi’s Teriyaki Grill in 1976, serving teriyaki chicken and beef; he is often considered the grandfather of Seattle teriyaki. Seattle food writer Naomi Tomky, however, attributes the proliferation of teriyaki throughout the city to John Chung, a Korean immigrant who, unlike Kasahara, took thinly sliced marinated meats and served them on bread like a sandwich. Chung moved to Seattle in 1983 and bought a location of Elo’s Philly Grill from the original owner, Joseph Zhovtis. He began serving spicy pork sandwiches, and eventually sold off the sandwich shop to open Woks Deli and Teriyaki. The restaurant sold teriyaki cheesesteak subs alongside sukiyaki and spicy pork, and developed the sticky-sweet marinade that has become ubiquitous in Pacific Northwestern teriyaki shops.
The Chung family estimates that more than 100 Korean immigrants trained at Woks and other Chung teriyaki restaurants, some going on to open their own restaurants elsewhere. Now, anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest is familiar with the menu of a teriyaki shop, also sometimes labeled a bento shop: combination rice plates with teriyaki meats, yakisoba, spicy pork or beef. However, in Portland, a few of the old-school Chung-esque teriyaki sub shops remain, serving teriyaki alongside turkey sandwiches — Sub Shop on Killingsworth, Sub Factory on Southeast Foster. None is more popular or better-known than Taste Tickler.
Sang and Hyun (Judy) Kim, current owner Andy Kim’s parents, bought Taste Tickler 17 years ago from its previous owner, Phillip Oh. But Taste Tickler had many different owners in its five decades of service. Its history is shockingly vague, more rumors and hearsay passed along, telephone-style, than a recorded timeline: Willamette Week reports that it was founded by a German couple who specialized in knockwurst, who then sold it to two Scandinavian brothers. It was also the first business purchased by the late Portland entrepreneur Everett Moore, who is also known for opening the dive bar-meets-diner My Father’s Place. Eventually, John Oh purchased the deli and passed it on to his brother, Phillip Oh; the Oh brothers introduced teriyaki to the Taste Tickler menu. That all happened before it landed in the Kim family’s hands.
Before the Kims purchased Taste Tickler, they had owned a number of restaurants in the greater Portland area: Kim’s Deli in Tualatin, Boston’s in Wilsonville. When they did take over Taste Tickler, they didn’t touch the menu much at all at first; intentionally or not, however, the recipes began to change. The Kims began cooking the beef for the steak Philly in a bulgogi-style sauce, with soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. “The steak Philly and chicken Philly have always been Korean-influenced,” Andy Kim says. “It’s frustrating because my parents refuse to say it’s Korean. Many people order the steak Philly thinking it’ll be a straight-up Philly, but luckily they’ve been pleasantly surprised.” Over time, the restaurant added a “pepper steak Philly,” which is a more traditional preparation of the dish.
Andy says that his parents’ resistance to acknowledging the Korean influence of the restaurant was born out of a concern with its audience: In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Portland was home to few specifically Korean restaurants — Nak Won opened in 2001, and Toji followed in 2002; Korean American restaurateurs in 20th-century Portland were more likely to own Japanese restaurants, serving things like sushi and teriyaki. Considering 77 percent of Portlanders are white, the Kims didn’t know what the response to bulgogi and kimchi would be. “They just didn’t think that Korean food was going to be that popular,” he says. “People can be resistant to change.”
When Andy began helping out with the management of the restaurant, he nudged his parents toward adding more overtly Korean dishes to the menu. He says the family started with Korean spicy pork, followed by a side of kimchi. The menu now sells bulgogi, kimchi chicken, and spicy pork subs, as well as plates of bulgogi with rice and vegetables; the Korean subs are some of the more popular dishes on the menu. But Andy wants the restaurant to embrace more Korean dishes: He plans to add things like galbi and japchae, and, ideally, a full menu of Korean soups and stews — soondubu jjigae with kimchi and soft tofu, spicy beef yukgaejang, creamy seolleongtang, beef bone gomtang. “Korean soup is really, I feel like it could be the next big thing, like the way pho is huge,” he says. “I think that could be really huge in the winter.”
These days, Taste Tickler’s status as a true Korean American deli makes it a fundamental part of the city’s dining history and a crucial part of its food landscape. Since it opened, more sub-and-bento shops have cropped up in other parts of the city, though Taste Tickler remains a standard lunch staple for locals, whether they’re ordering bulgogi or a sub — or, better yet, both. But in Andy’s perspective, the shop’s longevity has a lot to do with the relationships his family has built with longtime customers. “I have regulars who are friends, and I have regulars where we might not hang out, but they’re a part of my community. There’s that relationship, it’s not just a faceless customer,” he says. “We’re not pretentious; we’re pretty humble. There’s nothing wrong with being hip, but I think some people find it refreshing that we’re not trying to be cool. We are just focused on being open to everybody.”