San Francisco’s Japantown scores ‘Japanese soul food’

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ONIGIRI WITH A TWIST — New People’s Cinema Café, located at 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, now serves Onigilly’s rice balls. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
ONIGIRI WITH A TWIST — New People’s Cinema Café, located at 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, now serves Onigilly’s rice balls. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

New People’s Cinema Café recently added “Japanese soul food” to its menu. Onigilly, a food cart that sells onigiri (Japanese rice balls), opened its franchise at the cafe on Oct. 7, following its success at previous events in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Two years ago Koji Kanematsu decided to fill a niche market for onigiri. “It felt strange, everywhere I looked there was a sushi place, but no onigiri place,” he said. “I eat onigiri everyday, it’s really convenient, delicious and healthy.”

Kanematsu, a native of Shimane Prefecture on Honshu, once worked for multimedia company Square Enix in Tokyo, before it sent him to the United States to help expand the company’s brand in North America.

He fell in love with the San Francisco Bay Area, but felt that the city’s food scene lacked the Japanese staple he had grown up on.

In 2009, he made his debut at the J-Pop Summit Festival. He has since operated a small green and silver food cart outside of the Ferry Building off of the Embarcadero.

On his Website, he describes his onigiri as a “Samurai Snack.” He uses fusion recipes, and his onigiri differ from regular rice balls. Onigilly offers slightly less rice and more filling than conventional rice balls and features toppings such as spicy shrimp, eggplant, hijiki (a type of Japanese seaweed) and pickled plum.

Onigilly was invited to serve its rice balls at the cafe following its success at this year’s J-Pop Summit Festival in August.

“We sold 2,500 in just two days. It was our record,” Kanematsu said. “I got an e-mail from New People after the J-Pop summit.”

While the initial plan was to have bento boxes delivered to the cafe every morning, Kanematsu and Seiji Horibuchi, founder of New People, decided to have the staff make the onigiri to order.

“Onigilly is an inspiring start up and is developing a big gourmet following around the Bay Area with their healthy and delectable creations, and we’re very excited to collaborate with them and make their food available in our cafe,” Horibuchi said in a statement.

Each onigiri sells for $2.75, or $7 for a set of three with a side of edamame and shoga (pickled ginger).

The Onigilly products can be purchased at the Cinema Café inside New People, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

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