Spam Musubi lovers don’t need to leave town to get their fix
As a Half-Asian, San Luis Obispo transplant of 12 years (have I earned my ‘Local cred’ yet? I feel like I have), originally coming from the Seattle area, one of the things I really miss is the plethora of amazing Asian and Pacific Islander restaurants. Back in Seattle, there was a teriyaki takeout joint on every corner and the locals called everything from Manapua to Char Siu Bao, “hum bao” because they were so abundant.
In stark contrast is the local Asian food selection in SLO, where I must drive to Los Osos for my favorite Thai food, Paso Robles for the best Korean, and Santa Maria for my Hawaiian food fix. Thank Goshi’s for existing, I don’t know what I would do without an authentic Japanese restaurant in the city I live in. This is where Rice Jefe comes in.
Rice Jefe is a family-owned pop-up restaurant headed by chef Kevin Avila-Sanroman, who is taking Hawaiian-style Spam musubi and putting his unique spin on them. Operating out of Benny’s Kitchen, a multi-restaurant kitchen in the old Papa John’s location next to Kona’s Deli on Foothill, Rice Jefe offers a selection of Hawaiian food mere minutes away from my home. Only available on specified Sundays thus far, pre-orders start over a week in advance and tend to sell-out prior to the weekend.
For those who are not familar, Spam musubi is a Hawaiian snack usually sold in grocery and convenience stores, adapted from the Japanese omusubi and onigiri, which are triangular or cylindrical salted rice balls wrapped in seaweed and sometimes filled with traditional fillings like pickled plum (umeboshi), salted salmon (sha-ke), or bonito flakes in soy sauce (okaka). Hawaiians replaced the filling with a slice of Spam, optionally fried in shoyu, teriyaki, or oyster sauce, and a classic snack was born!
One of the best parts about contemporary Hawaiian cuisine is that it is a mash-up of all cultures that either settled or immigrated to the Islands over the years. Polynesian dishes and ingredients combine with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipinx, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese dishes and ingredients, along with what is available on the Islands to create unqiue Hawaiian variations of traditional Asian comfort food.
Bringing it back home to SLO, Rice Jefe gets to take that one step further as Avila-Sanroman has taken the wonderful flavors and DNA of these beloved dishes and made it his own. Their first offering was a ‘Tamago Omusbi Sandwich,’ in which Tamagoyaki (Japanese style sweet omelet), Spam, and cheese was wrapped in rice, Kewpie mayo, furikake, and nori (seaweed). While some on Instagram misidentified it as Spam musubi, it was closer to Japanese Onigirazu, which has a rectangular shape and more of a sandwich build to it than proper musubi. The combination of flavors were fantastic, albeit it a little messy to eat without its contents spilling everywhere, but it came in a paper liner to catch any overflow.
The second pop-up featured a more traditional Hawaiian style Spam musubi as well as two other variations that were equally delicious, with well-seasoned Koshihikari rice. I cannot stress enough how disappointing it is to have Spam musubi with plain, unseasoned rice. Some would argue that using sushi rice in musubi is overkill or too fancy, but I’ve had other musubi in this county that lack any character at all because the rice is not only unseasoned but cooked poorly. At least attempting a sushi rice means the chef cares about the flavor profile. I digress, the Spam is glazed in teriyaki and topped with furikake. A second musubi is filled with carne asada in lieu of the Spam and topped with a house-made spicy mayo and furikake. My favorite of the three was directed at my Millennial senses, Hot Cheetos and cream cheese filled musubi topped with Tajin and furikake. This last musubi is perfect for the vegetarian in your life who loves Hot Cheetos (you know the one).
The price of the musubi were the only thing to give me pause as I devoured them all with a voracity, they run about double the price of what they would in Hawaii or even ‘locally’ (only by driving to Arroyo Grande or Santa Maria though because California Fresh’s are about the same price), but I find the convenience and artisan nature of these musubi to be worth it to satiate my longing for some ono grindz.
Finally, not to overlook wife Briana Avila-Sanroman’s contribution to Rice Jefe as baker of Japanese confectioneries, they have offered Japanese butter cookies, Russian teacakes, and a white chocolate ganache filled Matcha Milk Bun thus far.
Find Rice Jefe on Instagram at @Rice_Jefe, where announcements for their upcoming Sunday Pop-ups are posted. The next pre-order starts Sunday, July 11th for fulfillment Sunday, July 18th at Benny’s Kitchen on Foothill and features taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped cake) in addition to musubi!