Don’t Feel the Burn

Sweet Japanese kimchi and lunch at Onigiri in Carytown.

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Horsepen Road has long offered a handful of Vietnamese and Chinese food destinations, but Carytown has an emerging Japanese corner. Onigiri, a small Japanese cafe, opened in July next door to longtime specialty grocery Tokyo Market. Now Japanophiles can get not just grocery staples but also quick lunches.

Wakoko Reno, Onigiri’s owner, started cooking in rural Texas, where she and her husband Walter lived before moving to Richmond four years ago. She used to take her homemade kimchi to gatherings, where her Japanese friends loved the taste of home.

“Kimchi is originally a Korean food, but Japanese kimchi is different,” Reno says. “It’s fresh, not fermented, so it’s not sour. It has a sweeter taste.” Kimchi can encompass many types of vegetables, and Reno offers kimchi cabbage and cucumbers. The vegetables have more pickle flavor than chili, with an earthy, almost smoky, tang.  

Reno’s parents ran an izakaya, or pub-style, restaurant outside Tokyo, and Reno worked there while growing up. The kimchi recipe is her grandmother’s. She never saw herself running her own spot, but then her Texas friends offered to pay for her Japanese kimchi, and Reno was off and running.

Onigiri are popular lunch and snack items in Japan, Hawaii and parts of the West Coast. They are made by stuffing balls or triangles of sticky rice with fillings ranging from flaked salmon to barbecue pork to shiitake mushrooms and wrapping them in dried seaweed. Sometimes parents will add little dried-seaweed faces for a child’s cute lunch surprise. Dedicated bento makers will even form elaborate onigiri animal or film character shapes. Tokyo Market sells bento lunch boxes and supplies.

In Richmond, Reno offers her kimchi, onigiri and other prepared lunch foods like seaweed salad or inari, small rice-filled tofu pockets. in a Japanese-themed setting. Reno makes mostly simple triangle onigiri but keep an eye out for the occasional kitty or dog shape, advertised on Onigiri’s Instagram feed.
I
n additional nods to kawaii (“cute”) culture, Japanese anime films play silently on a wall monitor at Onigiri. Wall shelves feature a collection of small figurines from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli films including “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away.” The cafe’s logo, an anthropomorphized smiling onigiri, was created by the couple’s middle-school-aged daughter.

As for that addictive kimchi – good luck getting grandma’s recipe. Reno says that she will share it with her children one day, but for now, her husband doesn’t even know it.  

Onigiri
2820 W. Cary St.
Tuesdays – Saturdays 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Sundays noon – 5 p.m.
onigirirva.com

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