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Anime away
Photos by Brian Feinzimer

Musubiya Balls & Burgers Is OC's First Restaurant to Embrace Musubi

There's no better application for SPAM®--Hormel's infamous canned, luncheon-meat product--than in musubi. Slice off a thick section, sear it on a skillet, then lay it over a platform of sticky rice with a belt of seaweed tied around it, and you get a pairing that's better than milk and cookies. A proper SPAM® musubi can be had at any Hawaiian BBQ worth its soy sauce, but at the new Musubiya Balls & Burgers, it's the basis of an entire restaurant concept.

When you order one here, you find out the SPAM® musubi is actually unlike the others offered on the menu. First, it's the only one that resembles an oversized piece of sushi, with the meat on the outside of the rice. The rest of Musubiya's musubis are hand-molded into triangular shapes, stuffed with all manner of fillings and cradled with a single sheet of nori. Mitsuwa, Marukai and Cream Pan call these kinds of rice balls by another name: onigiris. But they regard them as little more than afterthoughts. At Musubiya, musubis get top billing.

Ask for one, and the twentysomething female staff dons plastic gloves to sculpt warm rice into two halves of an equilateral triangle as if it were Play-Doh, tucking in your chosen filling. Since you're going to need at least two musubis to get full, the eatery offers a combo in which a bowl of miso soup is discounted for every pair of musubis you buy. And if you order your musubis to-go, they'll be wrapped with the seaweed still sealed in plastic to preserve its crispness, and you'll be instructed on how to unsheath them at home.

It's best, however, to eat the musubis as soon as they're made. This is especially true if you opt for the salmon-skin musubi, the best one of all. It's packed with plenty of crispy, salty sea chicharrones akin to the ones you had on a sushi-bar salmon-skin roll, but even better. Musubiya's staff dusts the outside of the rice with a flurry of furikake seasoning. And it's this seasoning--with the brightness of yuzu balancing the salmon's fishiness--that makes you realize immediately as you finish one that you need another.

As perfect as the salmon-skin musubi is, it's not the most popular variation on the menu. A Top 5 list scribbled with a neon marker and surrounded by blinking lights indicates the one with sukiyaki-style beef called "Lotta Bull" is the most sought-after. It's indeed very good, filling and rich, even if the heat and juice from the shreds of beef that taste similar to Yoshinoya's ultimately undermine the rice ball's structural integrity. Still, you want it if you're hungry, not the miso-cooked-eggplant or the pickled-cucumber musubi, both of which always leave me unsatisfied.

Now, musubi
Now, musubi

I've also discovered that if you want a musubi with chicken, the curry chicken--with whole morsels of meat simmered in Japanese curry--is more intriguing than the plain-tasting ground chicken. But perhaps the plainness of the latter and the ordinariness of the salmon-meat musubi are by design. Musubiya encourages you to doll them up with dabs of sauce from a crowded collection of condiments--an orgy of squirt bottles that includes Sriracha mustard, wasabi mayo and a homemade spicy green salsa I initially mistook for Peruvian ají.

The restaurant--which has a doe-eyed anime wench as a mascot--also makes a version of a ramen burger served with a knife and fork as tacit admission they don't expect you to pick up the greasy, pan-fried ramen discs with your hands. A better way to have the burger is actually as a sort of loco moco, with a sunny-side-up egg and rice instead of the ramen. Its half-pound burger patty is, in fact, a bona-fide Japanese-style Hamburg steak shellacked in teriyaki, which goes best with rice but also an included potato salad prepared in the classic Japanese style with egg, onion and a subtle touch of mayo.

If the musubis aren't substantial enough for you, they serve an unreasonable, sink-sized bowl of rice smothered with a curry full of potatoes, carrots and hunks of stringy beef for about the same price as the ramen burger. I've not yet been able to finish one unassisted. Also just as hefty: the pork-belly ramen burger that's not a burger at all, but pork cubes in a homey, sweet stew akin to Filipino adobo. If I'm not mistaken, they use the same meat to fill the pork-belly musubis. But since it doesn't quite measure up against the one made with plain SPAM®, it proves that with musubis--and maybe only musubis--you're actually better off with Hormel than homemade. Musubiya Balls & Burgers, 3701 S. Harbor Blvd., Ste. F, Santa Ana, (714) 979-4500; Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Musubis, $1.95-$4.25; burgers, $8.95. No alcohol.

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