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These Portable, Affordable Japanese Rice Sandwiches Draw a Lunch Crowd

On a quiet side street in Alphabet City sits Tokuyamatcha & Onigirazu; since its recent opening, it’s the city’s best example of the New York potential for onigirazu right now.

Ingredients tuck between layers of rice — a sliver of saba fish with a whisper of cheese, or cubed beef cloaked with pickled ginger — all bound in nori that holds a palm-sized dish that some call a sandwich. There are over 20 onigirazu to choose from, ranging from one with umeboshi and boiled eggs to chicken karaage and a recreation of pork belly ramen with chicken ramen-flavored rice.

The onigirazu here is prepared to order with rice that comes out hot, served in plastic wrap, for a filling meal for under $10. And since there’s just one bench inside this narrow cafe, and a table out front, most bring their lunch with them back home or nearby in Tompkins Square Park.

Onigirazu is related to onigiri, the mound of rice molded by hand, often with fillings and triangular corners. In Hawaii, there’s Spam musubi. Onigirazu is its own thing and is as visually appealing as other konbini (Japanese convenience store) food that has found a local footing.

But here in New York, onigirazu is still not as easy to find as onigiri which can be found everywhere from grocery stores like Ten Ichi Mart to cafes like Rice & Miso or more recently, Ridgewood’s Mama Yoshi Mini Mart. It has a few homes, though: In addition to onigirazu at Tokuyamatcha & Onigirazu in the East Village, it’s at Jackson Heights’s 969 Coffee and Bushwick’s Takahachi Bakery, among others.

Not only is onigirazu not yet commonplace in New York, but it is also a relatively modern invention in Japan.

“I thought about mixing onigiri with American fast food items, and of course with the sandwich you can do so much, and get all the nutrition with vegetables and lettuce, and the options for way more fillings and textures, and that’s less simple than onigiri,” says Tokuyamatcha & Onigirazu co-owner Tomo Tokuyama, who is originally from Osaka. “I wanted to make onigirazu because nobody does it here, and it’s not as popular in Japan anymore, either.”

The dish originated in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, popularized by a Japanese manga series called Cooking Papa by author Tochi Ueyama. In 2015, the Japan Times reported that Gurunavi Research Institute, a local restaurant guide, named onigirazu the country’s dish of the year, nearly 20 years after it was first featured in the illustrations.

Around that time, in 2016, Mitsumine Oda opened 969 Coffee, a Jackson Heights coffee and Japanese snacks shop specializing in onigirazu; back then it was one of the only purveyors of the dish in New York, according to a New York Times review. Oda fills his sandwiches with shrimp patties, chicken or pork katsu, avocado, spicy mayo, American cheese, and carrot shards. There isn’t really a menu at 969 Coffee posted, but tell him what type you’re looking for, and take a seat while he makes it to order. Nearly everything on the menu is around $5 and has remained that way since first opening, making it easily one of New York’s most affordable sandwiches.

In the years since 969 Coffee’s opening in Jackson Heights, onigirazu is slowly finding fans amongst the New York lunch crowd, accelerated recently by TikTok.

Since Tokuyamatcha & Onigirazu recently debuted, its profits have been propelled by user-generated videos on various social media platforms, in addition to neighborhood regulars.

Tokuyama owns the 627 E. Sixth Street cafe, which also sells high-grade matcha, with her husband, hairstylist Taka Tokuyama, who previously owned an East Village outpost of Tokuyama Salon next door (it is survived by two other hair salon locations in Manhattan as well as two in Japan).

Back in 2018, the couple opened a more straightforward cafe in the East Sixth Street storefront, with croissants and coffee for customers waiting for their hair appointments. But during COVID, while her textile design job in the fashion industry was on hold, she decided to double down and they relaunched it with a more Japanese menu and a new onigirazu-centric name.

Onigirazu has the makings for the moment. It’s portable and affordable. It doesn’t hurt that the sandwiches are gluten-free and often packed with vegetables — and in the case of T&O in particular, it touts high-quality sourcing (at least by taste alone, they served some of the most flavorful iterations). Still, Tokuyama says she was surprised by the recent success of the business, especially since it was a revamp of their former cafe.

T&O sells around 500 onigirazu during the weekend, and they’ve had to hire more staff. During a recent Monday lunch rush, a crowd curled out of the storefront, while delivery drivers waited for pick-up orders.

No two versions of onigirazu are interpreted the same. 969 Coffee has differentiated itself with its cheese, while others like Takahachi, the bakery in Bushwick that opened in May 2023 (they run another bakery in Manhattan as well as a sit-down restaurant), serve several types of onigirazu like fried shrimp with curry cabbage or tuna salad with onion (theirs are sold in a to-go refrigerator).

Words used to describe them also differ; Takahachi lists them simply as “onigiri sandwiches” on their menu. To muddle the definitions further, Juju Cafe in Cobble Hill calls theirs a “sushi burrito” — they come in flavors like shrimp tempura, bacon-egg-and-cheese, fried tofu with kimchi, and a buttermilk chicken iteration with onion rings — bringing up existential “is it a sandwich?” questions. Ultimately, no matter what you call it, anyone making onigirazu knows that properly cooked rice is what separates one from another. Like anything else, they’re best when fresh and made to order.

Tokuyama is riding the hunger for onigirazu at her East Village shop and honing in on the craft. “I have more ideas for new flavors, like with uni, but for now, I’m just trying to focus on what we already have and making everything really great.”

Source : Eater