The last great meal I had in Japan was not the takosembei, crackers made from pressed whole battered octopus that looked strikingly like William Morris wallpaper, or that glorious 1 a.m. bowl of dense, pork-oriented tsukemen, or even the shiokara made by a ponytailed sushi chef at a tiny bar under a train station, but a series of beautifully made onigiri. The triangular-shaped rice cakes, also called omusubi (the names are Japanese regional variations), are deceptively simple: rice pressed around a filling of some sort, then wrapped with a sheet of nori like a study in edible geometry. Before boarding the bullet train to Narita, I'd bought a half-dozen of the cakes at a department store stand at the train station.
If you've been to Tokyo lately, you'll know that you can get some seriously good food at department stores, which function as indoor food courts of the highest order. But still, it was disheartening to come home to L.A. and find those department store onigiri in Tokyo were not only better than anything I found here but exponentially so.
Which brings us to Sunny Blue, a tiny omusubi shop on Main Street in Santa Monica, that little beachy stretch of shops just north of Venice, and the best iteration of the dish I've had since that breakfast on a fast-moving Tokyo train.
Sunny Blue, which has been open for about three years now, is a tiny shop, basically a kitchen and a standing space for customers — with a high counter between them, at which you order and at which you eat, unless you're taking your rice cakes with you. Which you would, mostly, as onigiri originally were designed as portable snacks, kind of like PB&J sandwiches crossed with origami.
The onigiri at Sunny Blue are stunningly good, as evidenced by the fact that I was alerted to the place by two teenage girls who had walked there for lunch — from the Annenberg Beach House, which is exactly 2.45 miles away, assuming that teenage girls are capable of walking as directly as Mapquest.
The folks behind the counter form the triangles as you watch, from rice that's still a bit warm from the giant rice cooker, which is also behind the counter. The fillings — chicken curry, wasabi and konbu, albacore with spicy mayo, cured salmon with chile, enoki mushrooms and miso, spicy cod roe, to name a few — are fresh and flavorful, and the seaweed is crisp instead of the soggy stuff you get in lesser iterations. If you get the onigiri to go, it will be folded properly, with tear-away plastic wrap between the nori and the rice. If you get it to eat there, the seaweed will be folded up around the rice, the edges left standing high in lovely, dark green, filigreed sheets.
There are other fun things at Sunny Blue, notably side orders of edamame and kimchee and a pretty great selection of frozen yogurt, with toppings that include yuzu, azuki beans and matcha powder.
And maybe best of all, if you don't happen to live on the Westside — or have teenagers willing to walk there for you — Sunny Blue owner Keiko Nakashima is scouting locations for a second shop in Los Feliz. Nakashima isn't sure exactly where or when yet, but she wants a second outlet for the Japanese family-owned company. “I want to open tomorrow,” she said on the phone the other day. “I wish it was up to the owners!” A sentiment most restaurateurs in this town likely would echo.
Now if we could only get someone to build us a bullet train.
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