Sunny Blue remakes Japanese rice balls into an authentically Asian yet uniquely L.A. pleasure
By Gillian Ferguson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This Little Place Has Balls.
The tagline, written in old-fashioned cursive letters across the homepage of Sunny Blue’s website, tells you exactly what to expect: Omusubi, often called onigiri or shortened to musubi, are Japanese rice balls filled with meat, fish or vegetables. More often than not they are wrapped in nori (seaweed) and sprinkled with a furikake (Japanese seasoning blend), and the resulting combination makes up the bulk of the menu at Sunny Blue.
Beyond the menu, the tagline is surely a nod to owner Keiko Nakashima, who along with her dad opened the first Sunny Blue five years ago on a commercial stretch of Main Street in Santa Monica. With a background in visual merchandising and accounting, Nakashima had no professional cooking or restaurant experience when she set out to open the first omusubi restaurant in Southern California.
Raised partly in Tokyo and Yokohama, Nakashima grew up eating omusubi in her bento box. When the family relocated to the States she begged her mom not to put them in her lunchbox for fear of being made fun of.
“Kids would say, ‘oooooh, what is that black thing around your rice?” she recalls with a laugh. “But we’ve come a long way since then.”
The Main Street location is comically small — 250 square feet at best, most of which is devoted to a prep station where two or three cooks form the omusubi to order, scooping warm rice onto a stretch of plastic wrap before adding fillings, seasoning and shaping by hand. At peak hours the line spills out onto Main Street, and after a rush the floors are littered with stray grains of rice and sesame seeds.
Diners who intend to eat quickly are given their rice balls in the kind of cardboard raft you might get French fries in at a Dodgers game. To-go orders are wrapped in what is no doubt one of the greatest achievements in the history of food packaging design: a special sleeve on the exterior of the package separates the nori from the warm rice mixture, ensuring that the seaweed remains crisp and dry until you’re ready to eat.
A chalkboard lists the daily offerings. Miso beef, spicy salmon, tuna mayo — the list is at least 15 deep, with prices between $3 and $4 each on average. Spicy cod roe and Japanese pickles veer toward the traditional; chicken curry and eggplant chili miso accommodate American tastes.
Despite the overlay of Japanese flavors, Sunny Blue feels perfectly American. Compared to their Japanese counterparts, the portions are inflated. Their popular Godzilla sauce — a smoky mix of garlic, anchovies and red chilis — was invented by a store manager after customers continuously asked for “sauce.”
When asked to describe omusubi, Nakashima talks about it as the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich. Watching the line cooks squeeze house-made pickled plum paste out of a plastic bottle onto a bed of rice is indeed reminiscent of mom squeezing Smucker’s onto a piece of Wonder Bread.
In Japanese convenience stores, omusubi are as commonplace as hotdogs in America. You can pick one up at any 7-Eleven or Lawson market, and unlike the shriveled hot dogs spinning in perpetuity on the frankfurter Ferris wheel, each omusubi is stamped and dated with the time it was made. They are a staple in every schoolboy and schoolgirl’s lunchbox, and oftentimes parents decorate omusubi for their children, using nori to create cat ears or carrot scraps for a smiley face.
Stateside, it’s hard to imagine a situation where omusubi wouldn’t be appropriate. They fare well at the beach or at the Hollywood Bowl. They are kid friendly, which means it’s common to find a line out the door at Sunny Blue after soccer games and cheerleading practice. Plus, they are gluten-free and vegan friendly — attributes that come in handy when making lunch plans in Los Angeles.
Omusubi also make excellent airplane snacks. I once picked up two vegetarian rice balls the night before a flight; the next day, when I assembled them at 30,000 feet, the nori was still crisp and the rice moist and fluffy. I’ll never fly again without them.
The second Sunny Blue location, which opened in January, is situated on a stretch of Washington Boulevard that is quickly gentrifying into restaurant row: Neighbors include A-Frame, Hatchet Hall, the Corner Door and The Humble Potato 2.
This storefront is larger than the Santa Monica space, with indoor and outdoor seating and a liquor license pending. The menu is nearly identical, but the bigger space accommodates a cold case where side orders like burdock root salad, cucumber sunumono and Nakashima’s mom’s potato salad are easier to grab and go. The roomier digs also make it easier to linger and be tempted by a bag of shrimp chimps or the house-made sesame soft serve.
Nakashima’s success has her looking east for other possible Sunny Blue locations, and I have little doubt she’ll find success. Grab a few omusubi after the game or on the way to LAX, and someday you can say you tried it way back when.
Sunny Blue 2728 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 399-9030 12608 W. Washington Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 751-6306 sunnyblueinc.com