By MIEKO BEYER, Rafu Contributor
(Published June 19, 2019)
In a small plaza off Potrero Grande Drive in Monterey Park there’s an eye-catching new storefront – a bright and authentic likeness of one of Tokyo’s best known train lines, the Yamanote-sen. The creative flair behind the design for this new Japanese rice ball shop traces its origins back to the dedicated research done in Japan by founders Joe Miyano and Akira Yoshimura.
“The exterior goes back to Japan,” explained Miyano “Riding all the trains over our nine day trip to all the onigiri shops. The Yamanote-sen circles Tokyo and we used it frequently.”
Jichan’s Onigiri, 1975 Potrero Grande Dr., Suite A in Monterey Park, will have a week long, grand opening celebration starting Tuesday, June 18th. However the restaurant has already been extremely busy since May, when it opened with just lunch hours for its soft opening. The grand opening celebration marks the start of their full hours, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 4 to 8 p.m. for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.
“From the moment we open to close it’s been busy,” said Miyano. “We’ve gotten so much support from the Monterey Park community, the Japanese American community, the Asian American community and our neighbors.”
Before extending their hours, Miyano and Yoshimura wanted to make sure they had an additional onigiri chef who could keep up the quality they place at the center of their business. Now with additional staff hired, Jichan’s Onigiri is ready to launch into full swing. Everything they serve is made to order with warm rice, which means despite the high demand for their onigiri and the fact that the majority of their business is takeout, the staff at Jichan’s has to deliver “fast food” at a top-notch level.
However, the creators behind the delicious options such as “Kara-age Onigiri” (Japanese-style fried chicken) and “Shibazuke Shiso onigiri” (pickled Japanese eggplant with perilla leaf) bristle a bit at the mention of the word ‘gourmet’ for two main reasons. Firstly, their dream was to create authentic, homestyle onigiri inspired by local spots in Japan as well as the cooking in their own families. And secondly, they wanted to keep the pricing affordable.
“In Japan onigiri is comfort food and a staple part of the diet,” said Miyano. “What we make is something like Mom would make, not gourmet, not fusion…all the ideas are from Japan.”
The presentation and flavors of their onigiri is striking. Vivid violet streaks the warm white rice and a fresh shiso leaf peeks out rather artfully in their Shibazuke Shiso Onigiri, for example. “A lot of stuff they have in Japan…we kicked it up a notch,” added Yoshimura.
After much study and plenty of lifelong experience with onigiri, the duo has certainly kept tradition while also adding in their own flair. The company logo shows their focus on real onigiri — it’s the kanji for “musubu,” meaning “to wrap,” since onigiri is generally wrapped with a piece of seaweed (historically onigiri was popular for packing and traveling).
Though the quality of Jichan’s Onigiri speaks for itself at first bite, community support has been a key element in the path from food stand to restaurant. Yoshimura and Miyano first tested their business idea at the 626 Night Market at Santa Anita Race Track, where their onigiri was a hit. “We debuted there to huge success,” recalled Miyano. “It got our name out, but the goal was always to have a shop.”
They also did community events such as the Nisei Week Festival, the Cherry Blossom Festival in Monterey Park, the Torrance Yatai Festival, and the Asian American Expo. Finally in 2018 they were able to find a location in Monterey Park.
Born in Flushing Meadows, Queens in New York, Miyano grew up in Monterey Park after his father’s travel agent career took them to the West Coast. His parents moved to New York City first for his father’s business, and he fondly recalls their love and interest for Western culture. Miyano grew up speaking Japanese at home with his mother, Hiromi, and English with his father, Masahiko or “Michael,” who spoke English fluently and pursued a career in travel despite the wishes of his family, who were in the medical field.
His mother was a former model and runner-up for Miss Japan in the 1960s as well as a dance instructor in Japan. Though she switched to homemaking after marriage, the family, Miyano recalled, was always quite proud of her on-stage accomplishments. “We love to brag about her!” he said with a laugh.
Along with his older sister and brother, he made summer visits to Japan. He experienced his maternal grandparents’ farm in Chiba, where he got to pull radishes from the ground and catch fish in a local river. “My grandfather was a great cook, grew his own vegetables, made tsukemono and cooked miso soup that made my nails and hair grow. He lived ’til 101,” Miyano said.
And of course, his grandfather also made onigiri. “My first memories of onigiri are from my grandfather,” he recalled.
When Miyano was still a young child, his father passed away,and his grandfather took it upon himself to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren to help fill the void, visiting them in California as much as possible. A high school mathematics teacher in Japan, he was interested in Western culture and explored Los Angeles by the local bus systems, despite not being able to speak any English other than “hamburger please.”
However it was not until his twenties that Miyano himself started to take a more active interest in learning his grandfather’s cooking. Miyano was just 26 when his mother passed away. His grandfather visited even more often, and Miyano took the opportunity to learn from him.
Restaurants are still a new territory for Miyano, who majored in film and electronic arts at Long Beach State and went on to a career as a commercial producer. Over the years he had stayed in touch with childhood friend and co-founder Yoshimura, who he had met while working at Mikawaya, where the two made shaved ice and mochi in the Japanese Village Plaza.
“Akira always cooked for parties and had just returned from Hawaii where he had seen a popular onigiri shop, that began the idea to make one here,” Miyano recalled.
After some research they found that there are not many onigiri shops in the Los Angeles area and in 2017 they went to Japan for nine days, visiting 30 onigiri shops in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. They studied ingredients, presentation and wrapping techniques. “Japan always has a nice way of presenting food, even a sandwich at a convenience store looks nice!” Miyano noted.
When they returned from the trip Yoshimura was the one who came up with the idea to call their restaurant “Jichan’s” in honor of his father, originally from Hiroshima, and Miyano’s grandfather. Yoshimura grew up in Crenshaw and now lives in the South Bay. His father worked at The Rafu Shimpo for 35 years as a typesetter and his mother worked in the garment industry and seafood industry, where she peeled shrimp.
Yoshimura’s mother traveled to Los Angeles while eight months pregnant with him, and he was born here shortly thereafter. As a student at CSU Northridge, he majored in environmental and safety engineering and went on to work as a process safety engineer for refineries. He began cooking while in college and as an adult was known for the excellent cooking he did at social gatherings. For his work at Jichan’s, he consulted everyone from his mother to his aunt in Japan for feedback and ideas.
Now Jichan’s Onigiri will be bringing that authentic and delicious experience to future generations to come. The restaurant that started as just a conversation between two childhood friends has grown into a full-fledged business that would certainly make their jichans (and obachans) proud.
Check out the grand opening week celebration, with expanded hours and menu, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 to 8 p.m., June 18 to 22, at Jichan’s Onigiri, 1975 Potrero Grande Dr., Suite A, Monterey Park; (626) 782 -7754. Their expanded menu will include Mini Donburi Bowls in flavors like Soboro Ground Chicken, Karaage, and Spam served with egg, sunny side up or scrambled, as well as side salads, combinations and bentos. Jichan’s will also be giving away raffle tickets to customers and announcing winners via social media posts. Follow them on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jichansonigiri or on Facebook at facebook.com/jichansonigiri. Prizes include Jichan’s hats, tees and a $100 gift card.