For some reason, 7-Eleven only brings its A-game to Japan. Every single convenience store has eminently edible sushi, hot meals of karaage chicken, and, most gloriously of all, at least 20 million different kinds of onigiri, or rice balls. (This level of variety can have a downside; while studying abroad in college, I’m fairly certain I accidentally purchased an onigiri filled with cat food.)
Onigiri are the OG grab-and-go Japanese peasant food, a tote-able snack or meal of rice with fillings inside, handily wrapped in nori for maximum portability. When Japanese nationals made their way to Hawaii to work, their rice balls came with them. With the addition of Spam, musubi was born.
Now (finally!) Hawaii native Darrell Yuen and Chef JJ Needham opened a dedicated musubi and onigiri shop on Southeast Division. The Portland flare, naturally, is artisanal house-made Spam, local Ota tofu, and wild-caught Northwest salmon.
The results are fantastic—and mercifully cheap. With the exception of specials, Musubi’s menu runs from $2.50 to $3.75, meaning that a filling meal of two rice balls and a side of the creamy and heavily paprika-spiked mac salad will run less than $10.
The space is small—just a handful of bar stools and the front counter—so plan on maximizing the inherent convenience of rice balls and order to go. That artisanal Spam is a top seller, with a blend of salt and garlic spice, pork shoulder, and ham plopped onto a rectangle of short-grain rice. A triangle of rice with salmon cured overnight in Maldon salt, then grilled, was a perfect blend of flavors.
The only downside so far is a varying level of consistency in how much filling each rice ball gets—one visit had barely a scant amount of the spicy mayo tuna that got lost in the rice. Later trips had more generous fillings; it’s something Yuen says the restaurant is working on perfecting.
Yuen grew up on Oahu and says he was inspired by his mother’s stories of growing up on a sugar plantation. He says his mother, Takayo, told him about the tens of thousands of Japanese, Chinese, Pilipino, and other migrant workers who were brought to work on sugar and pineapple plantations, and how their food styles began to mesh and meld.
“We want to do things and flavors from those places that were involved in the sugar plantation camp,” he says, noting recent Chinese char shiu and pork adobo musubi specials. “Through [my mom], I know all the stories and realities of what happened on those plantations.”
The mac salad is his mother’s recipe, and the technique to craft it—seasoning the cutting board with plenty of salt and water and hiding the fillings in the center—also came from her. Naturally, the most iconic rice ball of all is on the menu: a pure white triangle with umeboshi (or sour plum) waiting inside like a lip-puckering present. It’s a salty, sweet, and sour experience that most Americans haven’t run across.
“That’s the one my mom would always make. It makes me go into my safe, happy place,” Yuen says. “It’s not our biggest seller, but every time someone gets it and eats it, I’m surprised by how they like it.”
Musubi has some deep cuts, too, like a delicious yaki-onigiri, a seaweed-free rice ball brushed heavily with shoyu and then grilled till crispy on the outside, with a fishy flavor burst of bonito flakes buried within. Sides include the memorable mac salad, miso with tofu and sweet potato, and a sesame-forward seaweed salad ($2.50-$3), which round out the rice-based menu.
Yuen says that he left his career in nonprofit fundraising earlier this year to start the business. He and Needham had originally planned to do wholesale and catering, until they realized many Portlanders don’t know what musubi or onigiri are.
“The more we discussed the concept, there’s a lot more education that needs to happen on the mainland,” he says.
Musubi also offers “Hui,” or pop-ups, in downtown, the Pearl, and inner Southeast and Northeast: a group of coworkers or others just have to contact the store, let them know how many people and what time, and they’ll show up with an array of musubi to buy.
Yuen says he’s also in talks with a few smaller Portland chains to stock his musubi around town, which hopefully starts the rice ball on every corner revolution that Japan has and Portland deserves.