Wordless Wednesday: Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Vegetable Nigiri; Hi Fi Mycology Mushroom, Aderezo, Lemon Zest. Zucchini Ahimi, Shiso, Rebel Cheese, Aderezo. Spaghetti Squash, Salsa Macha, Rebel Cheese, Scallion.

Veggiepillar Maki; Fried Miso Eggplant, Sesame, Pickled Cucumber & Carrot, Topped with Avocado and Serrano, Yuzu Miso Sauce, Sesame.

Fuyu Crudo; Rainbow Cauliflower, Beet Aguachile, Avocado, Roasted Beet, Salsa Macha, Sesame.

Spinach & Tofu Dumplings; Cashew Cheese, Candied Cashew, Cilantro, Red Curry Oil.

Lucky Robot
1303 S Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78704

Rice and Shine

Growing up in the age of internet anxiety, there was an intense, irrational fear of the unknown lurking in the depths of the Worldwide Web. I vividly remember stern warnings from teachers when we first climbed into chairs in the computer lab, the information superhighway at our fingertips. We were coached from day one to guard our privacy ferociously; never give out your real name, your phone number or, god forbid, you address, under threat of death or torture.

Now here we are in 2021, meeting up with strangers and buying vegan sushi off of Instagram. What a wild trip it’s been.

Despite that sketchy introduction, Rice Above is a fledgling food purveyor with low-key sales tactics but high-quality rolls. The moment I laid eyes on those brilliantly colored, boldly creative maki, I was hooked. Menus drop at random, and the only way to get in on the action is to watch @riceaboveATX on Instagram. Forget about the standard fusion fare; these are more than mere vegetable rolls. Meatless orange chicken, or watermelon tuna with cream cheese, or fish-free eel are just the beginning. As soon as I saw my opening, I had to place an order, of course, but I also had to know more. Luckily, times have changed since my earliest online interactions, and everything is easily accessible with just a few clicks of the mouse.

I reached out to chef Shane Michael, the man behind the business, to get the inside scoop on above board but below the radar sushi deals.

Hannah Kaminsky: Why/how did you get started in the first place?

Shane Michael: Well, when covid became a scary reality, I took a step back and left work to stay home and keep my family as safe and isolated as possible. When it first really hit us all… everyone was kind of at a loss for how to navigate the new territory. So many businesses closed and options for vegan food slowly began to dwindle. In the beginning, MANY of the normal spots here were closed. So, I really wanted to put an option out there for anyone stuck at home. I did contact-free delivery to help make it easier for anyone that was home bound and hungry. Since then, it’s been an up and up.

HK: Before launching Rice Above, did you have a background with sushi, or cooking in general?

SM: So, the only sushi background I had was just in making it as a hobby to eat at home. I started out rough haha then slowly caught the hang of it. Then really started branching out with what was possible or fun to do.

HK: What inspires the flavors for your rolls?

SM: I really wanted to focus on what wasn’t being represented for vegans, here. I don’t care about an avocado roll.. I don’t care about an AAC roll. These have always felt like cop out rolls on regular sushi menus meant to have a veg option. I wanted to make sushi that didn’t feel like someone was settling for a vegan option. What rolls can be veganized? Then, I just thought of what flavors go well with other flavor profiles. Blueberry + habanero, mango + spam, apples + oranges. It’s been most fun trying to match flavors that aren’t typically an option.

Zero Roll – Gluten Free Sweet Teriyaki Chick’n, Sautéed Cashews, VVhite Sauce, Crumbled Cashews, Eel Drizzle

HK: Is this your side hustle or full-time gig? What else do you do when you’re not rolling?

SM: For the majority of covid it has kept us afloat. But, ultimately, it is a side gig until I can really push forward and make it full time. At the moment I also work at a vegan food truck, down south. RVK!

HK: Does anyone else help you in the kitchen, or are you rolling solo?

SM: It really has just been me. I have had help with deliveries when needed. But, even that is something I’d like to figure out a permanent process for. It’s fun but it’s also a lot of work. It has to be a labor of love haha otherwise I’d lose my mind trying to keep up.

HK: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?

SM: I’d have to say… trying to organize the entire process. Keeping up with demand. Keeping options rotating to hold interest. Some weeks are absolutely insane. Prepping the right amount to fulfill all the rolls that are pre-ordered. Every week is just so different with how many customers are ordering however many rolls.

ShEELa RollAvocado, Cucumber, Wrapped in Vegan Glazed Unagi, VVhite Sauce, Eel Drizzle

HK: Have you faced any unique issues you weren’t expecting, in regards to operating in the middle of a pandemic?

SM: The pandemic propelled it. And Austin is incredible with its support of local vegan business. Our community is unlike any other. I think the pandemic actually forced a simpler process. No contact. So pickups are contact-free. Deliveries are on the door step. Masks. Masks. Masks.

HK: Any plans to expand? Regular pop-ups, food truck, brick and mortar, or something else?

SM: The ultimate goal is to have a food truck location. That’s on the agenda for next year. Fingers crossed. Until then… consistent weekly drops. Pop ups. And hopefully some branching out to other cities in Texas.

Appels & Oranjes Roll – Gluten Free Orange Chick’n, Pickled Carrot, Pickled Honeycrisp Apple, Fresh Orange Segments, Homemade Orange Sauce, Sesame Seeds

HK: How can people best support you right now? Aside from ordering, of course.

SM: Oh man. Any advice on this kind of stuff would be greatly appreciated. Something I think that helps massively and is often overlooked… is sharing on social media. The more photos posted in stories or on Facebook always brings more followers… which always brings more orders. It may not seem like something so simple could be so beneficial, but it’s one of the biggest helps for boosting the radar.

Also, some shout-outs to the best teammates in our local vegan community.

@vegmexnissi
@austinkindcakes
@lacalakabakery
@vegans_r_sexy cheese
@zucchinikillbakery
@veggcatering
@funky_mello
@revolutionvegankitchen
@bignonnas
@rebel.cheese
@sweetritual
and of course @bittersweet__

Sush-Easy

To anyone who can proclaim to dislike sushi, I can only shake my head in wonder. You don’t like rice? While the term has come to imply raw fish in modern usage, the actual translation of the word only refers to seasoned rice. Mouthfuls of lightly vinegared grains never hurt anyone, so why the animosity? If the paper-thin sheath of seaweed is still too briny for your liking, plenty of alternative wrappings are at your disposal for more colorful, flavorful containment. Beyond the predictable and traditional, there’s a bold new world of fillings to wrap up and roll out.

Let’s start with some Italian fusion with some Caprese Sushi. Mix herbaceous basil pesto into cooked and cooled sushi rice for a bold green backdrop. Press it into place along a paprika soy paper wrapper and line the center with vegan mozzarella, fresh heirloom tomato slices, and sun-dried tomatoes. Roll tightly, slice into a few thick pieces, and drizzle balsamic glaze across the plate before placing your fresh futo maki on top.

Traveling now to the jungles of Indonesia, Satay Sushi is a spicy, crunchy, savory treat that’s even better than anything on a skewer. Turmeric soy paper is the golden foundation for this one, with plain sushi rice cradling shredded carrots, grilled or sauteed meatless chicken, a thick smear of crunchy peanut butter, and everyone’s favorite hot condiment, chili crisp. You could always serve peanut sauce alongside, since I tend to encouraging going at least a little bit nuts.

Back to my own roots in New York City, Everything Bagel Sushi really is everything I could ask for in a mere maki. This one employs a sesame soy wrapper, of course, layered with the standard sushi rice, luscious lashings of vegan cream cheese, crisp cucumbers, minced red onion, dill, and a heavy sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning. Who needs the bread when you’ve got a compact roll ready to grab and go?

Finishing out with the next big blue plate special, Benedict Sushi promises to shake up the brunch routine with style and substance that would make the average English muffin crumble. It all starts with a spinach soy wrapper, rolling up around rice, blanched asparagus, vegan scrambled egg, and meatless ham. Slice and serve with a rich pool of hollandaise sauce for dipping, or dunking, as you see fit.

What’s your favorite way to wrap and roll? Do you stick with the traditional, understated vegetable maki, or shake things up with more unconventional fillings? While it’s hard to argue with the instant gratification of restaurant takeout, I promise you won’t find options nearly so fresh, fun, or fanciful as in your own kitchen.

Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706

Sushi Cups for the Rest of Us

Love sushi but hate the fuss and mess of making it at home? You and me both. Despite best intentions, such ambition inevitably leads to walls spackled with sticky rice, sesame seeds burrowed deep within kitchen tiles, and nori plastered across the table. Rolling up the compact parcels isn’t such a demanding task on paper, but in real life when deadlines loom and hunger gnaws with terrifying ferocity, all bets are off. If it’s still reasonably edible by the time I give up and scrape the mangled scraps into a bowl, I’d consider the venture a reasonable success.

For anyone else in the same sort of sushi boat, I’d like you to meet your new life (and sanity) preserver. Edible cups made of classic nori seaweed, crisp and delicate, in addition to more avant-garde carrot and daikon papers, are here to save the dinner. Swaddle your rice in flavorful wrappings without the need to roll. More elegant than the usual mess of fillings dumped into a bowl, these savory cupcakes are just as charming as they are delicious. Feed yourself or a number of last-minute guests with ease, even if some visitors aren’t fond of the “fishiness” that traditional maki rolls possess. Pale orange carrot cups have a subtle, natural sweetness that makes them an ideal offering for more picky eaters or younger palates, white the daikon option has a slightly bitter edge, perfect for cutting the richness of creamy avocado or a generous drizzle of miso mayo. In both cases, the only additional ingredient in the mix is agar, holding these thin edible vessels together.

It’s with equal parts excitement and frustration that I share this fantastic innovation, though, if you might have guessed from the previous product links. I first encountered these savory sushi cupcake papers at the Winter Fancy Foods Show, and regrettably, have yet to hear a word from or even about the company since. Why on earth hasn’t this concept caught on to spread like wildfire? There might be more competitors on the horizon, which is a relief, since my small stockpile has long since been exhausted. It’s an idea that’s just too good to keep to myself, regular availability not withstanding.

In lieu of perfectly formed nori, carrot, and daikon cupcake papers, what’s your quick fix solution when sushi cravings strike? Temari sushi or larger onigiri are probably the most direct conversions, offering single-serving bites of rice and vegetables without the need to roll, while temaki would be ideal finger foods to pass at a party.

Though this feels like another tale of “the one that got away,” I’m holding out hope that these sushi saviors will make a big splash on the market in the days to come. Either that, or someone will devise a press to turn nori into cupcakes at home. A hungry but lazy cook can dream, right?