Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Onigilly

Welcome to another installment of Julie-visits-a-random-place-because-of-Paypal-promotion.

I've had my eye on Onigilly for ages.  They pop up at different markets with their food cart, they've had a main location on Keary for a while now (although, only open M-F, making it less useful for me), and recently opened an Embarcadero location.  But I still hadn't managed to stop in before.

One weekday afternoon, I did manage to find myself near their Kearny St. store, so I finally visited.

I was really interested to try their amazake, described as a hot horchata, given that I like horchata, and it was very cold outside.  Unfortunately, they were out of it when I arrived at 1pm.  I guess I wasn't the only San Franciscan absolutely freezing in the 45 degree weather.

Then, I was interested in a seasonal special listed, a squash salad.  I asked what was in it.  The person taking my order didn't know.  He didn't offer to ask.  I tried to get any details, like, was it a salad of salad greens just topped with squash?  Or squash cubes in some sort of dressing?  Nothing.

Besides the unhelpful person taking my order, service was really friendly.  Each time, when my food was ready, they called me by name, and thanked me for ordering.  The store is small, with a few tables, but most people seem to grab and go.

I've stopped in several times to try assorted onigilly and sides, although I haven't really loved anything. I'm still very curious about the amazake, but it is now it is no longer on the menu.

Onigilly

On my first visit, I just went for my first onigilly.  It was ok, but not really my thing.  I had never had onigilly before, but it is basically just sushi in a slightly different style.  Their signage tells me that it is more common than sushi in Japan, due to its convenient form, good as street food.  Generally made with fillings similar to what you'd have for sushi, although less perishable, with rice, wrapped in seaweed.  Onigilly offers onigilly in a slew of varieties, mostly seafood (shrimp, cooked albacore, crab, salmon, eel, roe, etc) or vegetarian (tofu, ume, natto, shitake, lotus, etc), although they also have a few meat options (beef, chicken, bacon).  All wrapped up in seaweed, and surrounded by organic brown rice.   

A month or so after my first experience at Onigilly, I went to Tokyo, and discovered that they really are everywhere.  Even the airline lounge in SFO had them, as did every corner store, including 7-Eleven.  They were served for breakfast at my hotel.  And as snacks in my office.  You could find them pre-made absolutely everywhere (although, made with white rice, and presumably not organic).

And in Tokyo, I really liked them.  So, when I got back to San Francisco and was craving one again, I went back to Onigilly, even though I didn't really like the first one I had.  I again didn't like it, but I realized why: they use nice organic brown rice.  It was the sweetened, glumpy, white rice that I really liked in Tokyo.  The fillings are quite tasty though!

Seafood

Snow Crab. $3.22.
"Canadian snow crab w/ lemon aioli. "

The choices for onigilly were numerous, but I was craving crab. Even though this was snow crab, not local Dungeness, I still went for it.

I don't really like rice, and usually prefer sashimi at sushi restaurants, and I knew this would have even more rice than nigiri, or sushi rolls, but ... I was here to try something new. The rice was warm, hearty brown rice. They use only brown rice, California grown. It was fine, but, well, there was a lot of rice.

Inside the rice was the snow crab, a good amount, shredded. I guess there was lemon aioli in there too, but I didn't taste lemon, nor really pick up on any creamy aioli. At least it wasn't over mayo-y.

I did really like the nori wrapper. It was crispy and held up well.

I see the appeal of onigilly. It is easier to eat than sushi. If I liked rice, I could see myself enjoying it. But as it was, I really just wanted the crab out of the center.

$3.22 for a single one was fine for a snack, and they also offer platters with multiples and sides such as miso soup or edamame.

I also tried a few other seafood onigilly, such as the Miso Tuna Salad, "Cooked wild Albacore with miso aioli", which was basically the same, except with what seemed like generic canned tuna in the center rather than crab.  I think both Ojan and I were a bit shocked with the tuna, although, it wasn't advertised as anything different.  I didn't taste the miso, and it was kinda strange to just have tuna salad inside some rice.

Vegetarian

 Hijiki. $2.76. Pickled Diakon. $0.46.
"Braised hijiki seaweed, carrot, tofu & edamame."

On my next visit, I went vegetarian, for the hijiki.  Again, nice crispy nori wrapper, warm brown rice.  The form changed this time however, it was served as a triangle shape, like all the ones I saw in Tokyo, rather than the more handroll style I had the first time.

I again just wasn't into the rice, but the filling was tasty and plentiful.  The seaweed had a lot of flavor infused in it, and I liked how crunchy it all was.  But, I'd still just prefer a side of hijiki salad, rather than an onigilly.

I also ordered a side of pickled diakon when I saw it on the menu.  I LOVE pickled diakon, and this was no exception.  Crunchy. I loved it, and wish I'd made a double order!

The price for the single onigilly was great, only $2.76 since this was a vegetarian one.  And diakon was another $0.46, making my entire little snack just over $3, a wonderful deal.
Renkon:  $2.76
"Spicy sautéed lotus root w/ sesame".

The wrapping job on this one was quite poor.  Totally falling apart.  But what lie inside was tasty enough.  I liked how crispy the lotus root was, and the sesame added a lot of flavor.  And ... it was spicy!  I was just trying a bite of the filling out of curiosity, this was for Ojan, so I didn't have the rice to balance out the spice, and it had quite a kick.  Again, if I actually like riced balls, I'd like this one.

Meat

Spicy Bacon. $2.76.
"Bacon cooked w/ garlic butter & chili."

Ojan picked this up one day and told me I needed to try a bite.  It was certainly the most interesting of all the ones I tried.  It really was spicy.  It tasted a bit like crumbled sausage.  Really not bad at all, but I still don't like rice!
Soboro. $2.76.
"Ginger-honey braised ground beef."

Ok, this was delicious.  If only I liked the rice.  It tasted more like sausage than beef to me, but the flavor was great.  I'm glad Ojan let me steal a bite!

Sides

Besides the onigilly, the menu is fairly limited to just a couple soups, edamame, and tamago.  I of course tried a few of these too.
Miso Soup.  $1.95.
I'm not really a soup fan in general, but I was a bit chilly, and wanted something warm and comforting.  So I got the miso soup.

I expected just a broth, maybe with a few bits of token seaweed or tofu in it.  Instead, this was fairly loaded.  Along with plentiful tofu and seaweed, there were large chunks of carrots, onions, and daikon.  The veggies were all a bit too soft for my liking, and the soup overall wasn't all that interesting, but it was a very impressive serving for the very reasonable $1.95 price tag.  It was also served piping hot.
Tamagoyaki.  $1.95.
I love tamago.  I know it sounds crazy, but it is often one of my favorite pieces of nigiri when I go out for sushi.  I always terminate a sushi meal with it, and judge a restaurant by the quality of their tamago.  So I was pretty excited to see it on the menu.

The tamago was served just as slices, no rice.  This was fine with me.

But ... it wasn't really tamago.  It was just an omelet.  As you can see, there were no layers.  It wasn't seared on the outside.  Maybe it had a mild sweetness, but there wasn't much depth of flavor.  Really, it was just egg.

It wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't what I'd think of as tamago, and I wouldn't get another.  $1.95 for two pieces was a fine price.
Wakame Seaweed Salad. $1.84.
"Sesame seasoned wakame seaweed on top of our mixed green salad".

The seaweed aspect of this was was pretty standard, a mix of several different seaweeds, fairly fresh tasting, a bit of sesame and dressing.  I appreciated the lemon wedge too.  But ... it was served on top of mixed greens?  That was really strange to me.

Overall, fine, not particularly good nor bad, a decent portion for $1.84, but I didn't particularly want more.

Desserts

Strawberry Mochi.  $2.76.
Very recently, they added desserts to the menu. Or ok, a single dessert.  Since I have a serious sweet tooth, I couldn't resist.

At the register, in full display when you order is the offering: strawberry mochi: "House Mochi with Fresh Strawberries, Rice Flour, Red Bean Paste".

It came in a inverted cup.
The mochi, unveiled!
Inside was a large strawberry, fairly ripe, but still a bit white on one end.  It was coated in a thin layer of red bean paste, that didn't seem particularly sweetened, and a thin layer of very soft mochi, dusted with flour.

It was all ... fine.  I like mochi, I like red bean, I like strawberries, but this didn't quite come together for me.  I wouldn't really want another.

$2.76 is cheap for a dessert, but for just a single mochi strawberry, it actually seemed a bit high.

Drinks

Matcha Green Tea Lemonade. $2.
What do you do on a hot day?  You order refreshing lemonade!

I've had plenty of ice tea + lemonade combos before, but never with green tea.  It was lighter, and more refreshing this way.  However, it was too sweet for my taste.  I needed to dilute it to make it drinkable, and then I quite liked it.  I probably wouldn't get another though, but it helped quench my thirst on a hot day!
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