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“Onigiri is blue-collar, working-class comfort food meant to be eaten by hand,” says Gil Asakawa, a Front Range–based journalist and author of Tabemasho! Let’s Eat: A History of Japanese Food in America. And the nori-wrapped stuffed rice ball—an affordable snack eaten across Japan in venues ranging from homes to convenience stores to restaurants—is becoming more common in the Denver metro area.
While onigiri is most familiar as a triangular rice ball in the United States, shape isn’t necessarily defined by hard and fast rules. Asakawa recalls that his mom’s version took on a form of a flat oval stone, akin to a river rock. “It almost always has something in the middle,” he says.
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The most common filling is umeboishi, a salty-sweet pickled plum. But what’s inside can range from a tuna-salad-style version mixing canned fish with Japan’s famed Kewpie mayonnaise to meat and seafood to newer interpretations with plant-based alternatives. For some, however, there may be a limit as to what makes for an acceptable interior. “My mom is from Hokkaido,” Asakawa says, “and we had salmon onigiri. My wife would say that’s too fancy [since she grew up eating simpler presentations].”
The question of what’s too fancy and what’s not is further blurred by diners understandably confusing onigiri with its upscale cousin, sushi, notes Asakawa. While they share common ingredients such as rice and seaweed, the rice for each specialty is prepared differently. Sushi rice is flavored with vinegar—but onigiri is seasoned with salt, which is either added directly to the grains or by the cook dipping his or her hands in salt water.
Context is important in understanding onigiri’s role in the culinary pecking order. Where sushi can evoke the high-end of aesthetic of pricey eateries, onigiri seems to bring back humbler memories. Asakawa notes that for his wife, these handheld bites had a strong association with family activities, namely hunting for matsutake, or pine mushrooms, in Colorado’s Rockies. She and her family would gather these fungi, typically found in forests, with onigiri close at hand for a quick repast. Says Asakawa, “Onigiri is Japanese-American picnic food.”
While those who were raised on onigiri may consider it more of a homespun treat, there are many opportunities to sample the snack at restaurants in and around Denver and Boulder. Here is where to find it.
Another star in chef’s Kelly Whitaker’s constellation of restaurants, which includes Sunnyside’s award-winning Wolf’s Tailor and LoDo’s Brutø, Dry Storage is a compact cafe with a heritage-grain-centric lineup. While many come here to enjoy a croissant or country bread with a cappuccino, there’s also a mix of premium tinned seafood and onigiri on tap. On some days, miso soup is also available, making for the perfect cold weather accompaniment.
Order this: The expertly seasoned smoked trout onigiri has optimally textured rice and a fish filling that perfectly balances the salty and the smoky.
Fuji Restaurant and Bar
This humble eatery dishes an out an intriguing combination of Nepalese and Japanese dishes, enabling one to enjoy a side of momo dumplings alongside their teriyaki chicken rice bowl. Fuji offers an expansive selection of traditional onigiri (starting at $3), including a decent number of meatless choices. Onigiri sets are also available (starting at $6), which are accompanied by miso soup and pickles.
Order this: While the fish-based onigiri here are all worthy of consideration, the ume, or umeboshi plum, is perfect for those enamored with salty and sour flavors.
Katsu Ramen is a one-stop shop when it comes to Japanese comfort food. The menu features over a half dozen variants of its namesake noodle as well as a selection of rice and poke bowls. But there’s also a full dozen varieties of onigiri ($5), including a handful of vegetarian numbers such as pickled wasabi and seasoned kelp or pickles and wasabi. Carnivores may want to check out the Spam versions, which are available in both kimchi and teriyaki variants.
Order this: The miso beef comes with onions and potatoes and the overall impression is similar a slightly creamier take on sukiyaki, the traditional Japanese beef stew.
Available only on Thursdays, Stowaway’s onigiri offering began as a pandemic alternative to this eatery’s Friday Japanese lunch special. Once the restaurant reopened for dining, it continued to offer the rice balls once a week, in part because of the labor-intensive nature of crafting onigiri. There are three varieties available ($5), including one filled with grilled salmon.
Order this: While all of Stowaway’s onigiri are gluten-free, the two vegan options draw upon Japanese vegetarian traditions. One spotlights the classic umeboshi pickled plum accompanied by seaweed salad, the other is filled with shiso pickled eggplant and cucumber.
While generously portioned poke bowls are the main attraction here, Waikiki Poke stands out by virtue of offering both a Spam musubi (Asakawa notes onigiri and musubi are more or less interchangeable in the Japanese language) and tuna or chicken onigiri. Made in house and available in one of this shop’s refrigerated cases, these have the salad-style filling familiar to Japanese-American households, mixing protein with mayo. These onigiri come packaged in a traditional Japanese wrapper with illustrated instructions on how to eat, complete with kanji commentary, and a separate compartment for the seaweed to prevent sogginess.
Order this: Either the tuna or chicken offer a taste of Japanese-American experience, and the partitioned packaging is a bonus.
Having recently moved from a ghost kitchen in Aurora to a new dine-in location on East Colfax in Denver, Wellness Sushi is unique among local onigiri spots in that all of the ingredients are plant-based. For example, the meatless Spam, which is featured in many of the onigiri, is made of ingredients as non-GMO soy, peas, rice, and mushrooms. Purists may scoff at the generous size of Wellness’s offerings, as the onigiri closely resemble a fast-food burger in volume and are packed with multiple ingredients. But there’s no questioning that these meatless rice balls fit the bill for those seeking something both filling and comforting.
Order this: The ebi tempura onigiri is a good way to sample a mix of the intriguing meatless ingredients. This onigiri showcases vegan tamago (Japanese scrambled egg), plant-protein-based Spam, and a surprisingly convincing herbivore take on shrimp tempura.