Sushi tots served Sumo-style
Sushi tots served Sumo-style
Frank Wonho Lee

Sushi Tots Might Be the Most Popular Dish in Koreatown

Picture all the things you love about sushi rice, tater tots and poutine, and you’ve got Sumo Dog’s genius creation: sushi tots smothered with Japanese-inspired toppings.

While these crunchy rice nuggets can be ordered plain or dusted with a spicy wasabi furikake, the fun part is going big with it. For a more poutine-like experience, order them “Sumo style,” which is a play on American chili cheese fries but done with Japanese ingredients. It's topped with spicy pork or tofu chili, togarashi cheese sauce, jalapeños, pickled peppers, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce and furikake.

This decadent appetizer comes from the mind of chef and co-owner Jeffrey Lunak, who helped expand “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant empire and was formerly the executive chef at Morimoto Napa. With his background in Japanese cuisine, he’s approaching his tots rather thoughtfully, in the same way he would with sushi.

“It’s similar to sushi, where you try to achieve that umami factor when you try to combine the sweet, the acidic, the spicy and the salty — and I think every ingredient [in this dish] kind of plays that role,” Lunak says. “Pickled baby bell peppers are sweet and slightly tart from the pickling liquid; the raw jalapeño gives it a little heat and a little texture; combined with umami from the nori and the spicy wasabi seasoning; and obviously the flavor explosion of chili. [Then there’s] the duality of the Japanese miso with the Korean gochujang chili paste that provides a real big backdrop for flavor.”

Sushi tots served Loco Moco–style
Sushi tots served Loco Moco–style
Jean Trinh

Sumo Dog also has a secret, off-the-menu option, where patrons can order the sushi tots Loco Moco–style, meaning they’re generously dressed in Hayashi-style beef gravy, mushrooms, pickles, furikake and a sunny-side-up egg.

These tots aren’t just balls of deep-fried rice. Lunak says making them is “fairly time-consuming.” He had to experiment to get the perfect crispy texture on the outside and gooeyness on the inside. For the tots, he prepares the sushi rice the traditional way, just ashe did in his old days at Morimoto, but there’s a slight difference: “We don’t wash it as much, and we overwork the gluten, which creates this kind of sticky-rice texture,” he says.

Then he adds into the rice the same pickling liquid that he uses for some of his vegetables, something that is a little sweeter than he would put in sushi rice, and seasons it before rolling the rice and hand-cutting it into cylindrical tots.

Sushi tots dusted with furikake
Sushi tots dusted with furikake
Frank Wonho Lee

He first came up with the idea of sushi tots as he was starting to think about opening his tiny brick-and-mortar shop in Koreatown with partner Mark Stone and designer Thomas Schoos. “It was something we joked about because everybody had crispy rice and spicy tuna at your average sushi place,” Lunak says. “What I was trying to figure out is, ‘Can a fast-casual hot-dog place that’s rooted in some Japanese technique actually make the sushi rice tots?’”

Even though Sumo Dog’s featured items are its gourmet hot dogs with Asian-inspired toppings (everything from a bacon bánh mì dog to a panko-crusted wiener accompanied by tonkatsu and mustard-miso sauces), Lunak says the sushi tots are the restaurant’s biggest seller. On a busy day at his restaurant, he goes through 1,500 to 2,000 of these delectable rice nuggets.

He came up with the idea of Sumo Dog because he felt he could do more with Asian-style hot dogs. “I thought of it as an area of food that hadn’t really been done, or at least done well,” Lunak says. “There are a few people who do Asian-inspired hot dogs, but I don’t think top to bottom that they’re at the same level, whether it be from a service standpoint, flavor profile or ingredients."

Sumo Dog inhabits a chill, tiny Koreatown space that's noticeably different from the high-end Japanese restaurants Lunak used to work at, but that's the point: He wanted to go in the direction of a more relaxed and approachable eatery. There's nothing more relaxed than tots.

516 Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 375-7755, eatsumodog.com.

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