Rice balls are terribly overlooked in Los Angeles. Called onigiri or musubi in Japanese, these clusters of packed rice are stuffed with things like pickled vegetables, spam, or seasoned, pulverized meat. Eat one and it makes for a good snack. Order two or more, and you might have a full meal, depending on your appetite.
It's a dish that, despite its easy marketability, hasn't yet taken off as a crazy trend in Los Angeles (unlike poke). There's potential though, because in recent years a couple of specialists have popped up. Here's a guide to the rice ball scene in Los Angeles:
Owned by siblings Phillip and Carol Tran, Mama Musubi made its debut at the 626 Night Market, serving out baseball-sized rice balls, stuffed with warm salmon, crab, teriyaki, beef, and other variations; the menu changes occasionally. You can now find their stall at local farmers' markets: Altadena on Wednesdays, South Pasadena on Thursdays, Eagle Rock on Fridays, and Studio City on Sundays. It's the texture that makes their musubi special. The nori is always warmed and crisped, the rice hot and compact, and the fillings fresh and substantial. Various farmers' markets, see their Facebook for details.
If you're a traditionalist, Kawaba is the place for you. Located on Fairfax, the eatery has its roots in Japan, where it started as a rice ball store in a small town of only 3,500 people. They're extremely detailed-oriented here -- the rice is cultivated from the village of Kawaba and is always served soft and warm. Popular fillings include spicy tuna mayo, chicken curry, and grilled salmon. Rice balls are the staple here, though you can get combinations with soup and salad. 7368 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046; (323) 272-4510.
With locations in Santa Monica and Culver City, this restaurant has perhaps one of the most eclectic selections of musubi out there. There's freshly pickled wasabi with pickled kombu, albacore tuna with diced cucumbers, spicy cod roe, and of course the normal options of beef, salmon, chicken, and shrimp. A portion of their menu is dedicated to seasonal specialities as well. Their tongue-in-cheek slogan: "This place has balls." 2728 Main St, Santa Monica, CA 90405; (310) 399-9030.
If you're having a craving for some traditional spam musubi, Chibiscus is a great place to get that fix. An order comes in four pieces, wrapped with nori, served with warm rice. Vegetarians, fret not -- they have a meatless option with vegetarian ham. If you want something more than musubi, this Asian fusion eatery also has a lovely selection of ramen, rice bowls, and fluffy pork buns. 7361 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90046; (323) 977-9877.
This eclectic Korean sausage joint on Sawtelle has a fiery collection of rice balls. There are three types on the menu, including one kimchi fried rice ball stuffed with spicy pork, smothered with cheese, and served with garlic, jalapeno, more kimchi, and Sriracha aioli. You can go traditional with a spam musubi with pineapple and macaroni. Or consider the Lil' Osaka Ball with Japanese curry rice, beef, and potatoes. 11313 Mississippi Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310) 477-7739.