By Nancy Tannler
2134 SE Division St,
503.444.9734 (Text ahead)
Mon – Fri 8 am – 3 pm
Sat Sun 10 am – 5 pm
Portland’s creative culinary entrepreneurs are making our city one of the world’s great centers for variety in dining experiences. The latest offering is Musubi, at SE 21st & Division, and the collaboration of two young men who serve a form of Japanese/Hawaiian fast food. The main menu items are triangular or rectangular rice balls with a variety of fillings.
The moment of enlightenment to open this type of restaurant happened when owner Darrell Yuen was traveling with his family. Originally from Hawaii and of mixed Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian ancestry, Yuen had gone to Japan to visit relatives and to think about what’s next in his life after resigning from his executive position at the Oregon Food Bank.
While traveling he would purchase onigiri, beautifully wrapped rice rolls, from street vendors to take on the train. They kept everyone healthy, happy and well-fed. Yuen was familiar with this type of food from living in Hawaii, where this food was called o’Musubi.
In the meantime the other owner, JJ Needham, had been working different restaurants around Portland learning his way around the kitchen. Needham also had the opportunity to live in Japan while his wife was working there and became familiar with onigiri and other Asian fast food favorites.
The two partners became acquainted through their wives and children at their school and the conversation about their restaurant Musubi (westernized dropping the o’) began. It didn’t take long to know what they wanted to do and, as fortune would have it, the space on Division opened up with everything they needed to begin.
Unlike sushi, the ingredients are all cooked so it is safe to travel with or wait for awhile to eat. This does not mean they are made in advance however. Every rice roll is made fresh and contained by this ingenious wrapper that preserves the form and blends the nori with the rice roll upon opening. It’s something easy to grab and go.
Interestingly one of the predominant ingredients in the Musubi rectangle is spam. (In Hawaii, the hot dog is an acceptable substitute Yuen said.) Yet Needham does not just open a can, fry it up and call it good. Instead he slowly simmers a pork shoulder and garlic overnight before pressing it into shape.
They make their own miso soup too using their house-made dashi to give it a delicious flavor instead of tasting bland like some do.
The outside of some of the rolls are coated with nori, black and white sesame seeds and salt. The insides are varied, containing plain rice, sea kelp, tuna, salmon, chicken or tofu. The use of ume plum vinegar lends that unique flavor to their rice and even the just rice triangle is satisfying. The wakame dulse salad is made with seaweed from Maine where they were able to find a good source.
For libations, they offer Hawaiian soft drinks, saké, wine, Hitachino Japanese beer and beer to go.
Although Musubi is mostly a take-out place, there are a few tables and a counter where you can eat. On the large open wall artist Eugene Good is creating a one-of-a-kind mural that tells the story of onigiri’s migration from Tokyo, Japan, to Pearl City, Hawaii, to Central Oregon, to Portland and to the Yeti waiting at Mt. Hood to get his hands on some.
It’s a clever, intricate collage of ideas rendered in black and white giving customers something imaginative to look at while they are waiting for their order.
With Yuen’s background at the Food Bank, he is aware that one in five go hungry here and around the country. The partners decided to donate a portion of every meal to the Portland Fruit Tree project. Portland Fruit Tree Project is a grass-roots non-profit organization that provides a community-based solution to hunger, food insecurity and lack of access to fresh, healthy produce.