Why some so-called street food grabs a city's attention and not others is a mystery for the anthropologists – or maybe the folks at Lucky Peach. There are, thank God, tacos and fruit carts on repeating corners in L.A. But it remains bafflingly difficult to find good omusubi, also called onigiri, the phenomenally delicious filled rice balls that operate like portable snacks in Tokyo. You can find sad refrigerated iterations in the cases at Mitsuwa and other Japanese groceries, but other than the Onigiri Truck and Sunny Blue, a very cool and very tiny shop in Santa Monica, there isn't much else.
Or so we thought until a recent pilgrimage to the Altadena farmers market, where Phillip and Carol Kwan have for the last year been setting up their Mama Musubi rice ball operation. The brother-and-sister team launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012, operate as a catering company, and attend the Altadena Wednesday market. Tonight, March 7, and for the next week, the Kwans will be popping up at Aburyiya Toranoko in Little Tokyo – their first pop-up event.
The Kwans' versions of the popular Japanese snack are certainly worth the trek downtown (or to the upper reaches of Altadena), as they're extraordinarily fresh and flavorful and filled with some pretty awesome stuff. If you've been surviving on the sad rice balls in refrigerated cases, these will remind you why onigiri are all over the place in Japan, from convenience stores to family shops to high-end department stores in shinkansen stations.
The Kwans fill their gorgeous triangles of beautifully articulated rice (Japanese short grain, California-grown) with, among other things, miso Jidori chicken, Berkshire pork belly, salmon, Asian sweet sausage, and a fantastic kelp and r?yu (chile oil) concoction that is utterly addictive. There will also be specials over the course of the week-long pop-up. The rice balls (balls, triangles: food geometry being somewhat relative) are embedded with fillings, then folded with nori, edged with sesame seeds and more seaweed, and wrapped in a bit of paper – this being portable food, after all.
The Mama Musubi pop-up will be operating within the normal hours of Aburiya Toranoko, the downtown L.A. Japanese restaurant owned by Michael Cardenas, whom the Kwans met at one of the many food festivals they attend. Which means lunch, dinner – and happy hour, a pretty great time to eat onigiri. Maybe just close your eyes and pretend you're on a sidewalk in Shinagawa. (Some of us do that all the time.)
The Mama Musubi pop-up at Aburiya Toranoko: March 7-15 (closed Sunday, March 9), 243 S. San Pedro St., downtown L.A..; 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m., and 5 – 11 p.m. Monday – Saturday; closed Sunday.
See also: Sunny Blue: Great Omusubi in Santa Monica + Coming Soon to Los Feliz