Onigiri and Onigirazu at 969 NYC Coffee in Queens - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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Mitsumine Oda’s original idea for 969 NYC Coffee, in Jackson Heights, was just what the name suggests: a simple, small coffee shop. The bright yellow awning shows a wispy “969” – Oda’s favorite number, we later learn – rising from an “NYC” cup.

The side of the awning, however, reveals that this is much more than your average neighborhood coffee place. In bright green lettering, it reads matcha (powdered Japanese green tea and the beverage made from it) and onigiri, accompanied by the terse explanation “rice ball.” Left unmentioned, at least until we climb a few steps to the small covered patio and within reading distance of a review affixed to the window, are onigirazu.

These “sushi sandwiches” (an imperfect definition, which we’ll expand on later) are a recent addition to Japanese culinary culture. They weren’t on Oda’s radar until he opened his shop, and weren’t on ours till we visited, but onigirazu have become 969 NYC Coffee’s local claim to fame. We still haven’t tried the coffee, but we have our have our favorite onigirazu from Oda’s roster of over a dozen different fillings.

Oda was born in Chiba, Japan, in 1964. He spent many years of his working life in Tokyo, first as a part-time cook in a five-star hotel, later at the celebrated Tsukiji market. Not as a fishmonger, however – Oda learned to carve meat “side by side” with his boss at a Tsukiji butcher shop, and worked there for nearly 20 years.

By and by, however, Oda resolved to “try [his] independence” – to be his own boss – and believed that the United States would offer more opportunity than Japan. His brother and sister had already moved to New York; their mother would later follow.

Upon his arrival in the States, Oda spent a number of years operating his own concession at college food halls. As customers, undergraduate students are a tough crowd, mostly concerned with low price, large quantity and fast service, but at least the stream of potential customers was continually replenished each semester. Oda recalls with pride his sushi business at Hunter College, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which began as a four-foor-wide stall and grew in both size and popularity.

As time went by, however, Oda felt the need for a greater sense of community. On one of many walks from his home in Woodside, where he lives today with his mother and sister, he cast his eyes on a vacant side-street shop set back a little ways from Roosevelt Ave. The raised, covered patio out front was unusual for the neighborhood, and while it would not shut out the noise from the avenue of passing cars, trucks and the occasional 7 train, it did suggest a certain amount of intimacy, even calm. And the landlord, Oda quickly discovered, lived right up the block.

969 NYC Coffee, which opened in October 2016, became a rare Japanese outpost in a largely Latin American neighborhood where ceviche, tacos de pescado and caldo de bagre are much easier to track down than tekka maki. Even today, painted-over traceries of the shop’s previous tenant, a salon de belleza (beauty salon), are still visible on the awning when the sun catches them just right.

On our visits, there’s always a steady ebb and flow of young couples, parents pushing strollers, sojourning travelers on a first visit – one had just flown into LaGuardia, and soon would be boarding a commuter train – and longtime customers making a regular pilgrimage. One regular customer, who has been coming here “since the very beginning,” Oda says, took a large order to share with friends in a nearby park. Another long-timer had left her wallet at home. “Sometimes my customers forget their change,” he adds. “They bring it to me next time.”

“People can’t make it alone,” Oda observes. Although he does almost all the food prep and cooking at his shop, on Saturday, his busiest day, an assistant joins him behind the counter. And at home, Oda adds, his mother and sister cook for him.

Oda was able to keep his shop open throughout the pandemic – although only during limited hours during those first trying months, beginning in March 2020 – largely thanks to “a lot of neighborhood customers.” For his part, Oda donated food to the frontline responders at three New York hospitals, and still does. He also tells us that “I don’t take tips,” meaning that he doesn’t keep them – whatever turns up in Oda’s tip jar he donates to the hospitals, too.

The menu includes a wide variety of Japanese dishes and prepackaged treats. Tips for the individual items – a bowl of ramen, an order of sushi or curry, a lusciously thick matcha avocado shake or a garishly packaged snack or drink imported from Japan – might be small, but they add up. Oda’s biggest sellers, however, are his onigiri and onigirazu. “Today I made a lot already,” he told us late one Saturday morning, pointing to a half-empty display case. Both onigiri and onigirazu travel well – to a park, on a train or, perhaps, only as far as the covered patio.

Onigiri are relatively simple. Despite the appellation “rice ball,” more often they take the form of small pyramids. Oda molds his into hearts, pressing lightly salted white rice around a core of salmon salad, kimchi pork, chicken teriyaki or the pickled plum called umeboshi. Most of his onigiri are undecorated except by bands of nori, dried seaweed, in different configurations that distinguish the different fillings.

While onigiri have a centuries-long tradition in Japan, onigirazu have been around only since the early 1990s. As the name might suggest, these are larger, grander relatives of onigiri in the shape of sandwiches, but with pressed vinegared sushi rice, wholly wrapped by nori, in lieu of bread. Oda fashions a dozen or so varieties, including onigirazu with chicken or pork tonkatsu; corned beef or spam; mango with avocado and a corn croquette, okra with avocado, and seafood such as salmon or mackerel, soft-shell crab, shrimp and – our favorite – fried oyster.

Proudly presented by Oda, each onigirazu – sliced in two with cut edges facing outward, snugly fit to a clear plastic carry-out container – feels like a jewel made just for us.

In Japan, onigirazu made their first public appearance in “Cooking Papa,” a long-running manga written and illustrated by Ueyama Tochi, about a salaryman whose loyalty to his company is rivaled by his love of cooking. For Oda, there’s no rivalry – he can be his own boss, in his own kitchen, and feel the embrace of his community, too.

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