My school lunches didn’t look like other kids’.
Instead of sandwiches or Lunchables, I’d bring bento boxes with rice, veggies and meats. My favorite days, though, were when my mom packed me onigiri. And now, Little Ari’s Japanese Kitchen in Greensboro offers my childhood treat.
Onigiri, or rice balls, are a Japanese staple. They look kind of like giant sushi rolls — various ingredients embedded in a ball of rice, covered by a sheet of seaweed. We eat them on the go — almost all Japanese convenience or grocery stores have them stocked individually wrapped in various flavors on their shelves; they’re as ubiquitous as sandwiches are here. They’re our go-to easy lunch or snack. My favorite flavors are the shiojake, or salted salmon, and tuna mayo. And Little Ari’s Japanese Kitchen on Spring Garden Street has both.
Situated just past Pho Hien Vuong before you hit Market Street, the fast-casual Japanese restaurant seemingly popped up out of nowhere at the end of the last year. Opened by the same minds behind Arigato’s Steakhouse, Ari’s offers a pared down menu of hibachi entrees, ramen bowls, onigiri, salads and a few other Japanese favorites.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a half-dozen customers filled the bright space and slurped ramen noodles while others doused their entrées in white sauce. My fiancé and I opted for a classic combination: a bowl of ramen with some onigiri and a side of shrimp katsu, or ebi fry, as it’s otherwise known in Japan.
A large, easy-to-read menu hangs on the wall, making ordering at the counter a simple process for first-timers. Customers can choose from familiar hibachi (which means “grilled,” by the way), entrées like teriyaki chicken, hibachi shrimp, steak and a vegetarian tofu option which comes with steamed or fried rice and two picks of sauce. For a noodle alternative, three ramen flavors occupy the menu. All come with a type of meat-based broth but the most popular and traditional one is the tonkotsu, or pork bone-based soup. A choice of wavy or straight noodles and a pick of meat rounds out the DIY process.
In addition to the hibachi and ramen items, the restaurant offers a few lesser-known Japanese comforts. A beef curry, which is sweeter and thicker than Thai or Indian curry, and some katsu, or panko-fried proteins, like chicken and shrimp also make an appearance.
We went with the classic tonkotsu ramen with chicken, a side of shrimp katsu and one shiojake and tuna mayo onigiri each.
The ramen came out first, in a huge bowl, enough to feed two. Chopped pieces of green onion floated atop the creamy-looking broth while long, stringy bean sprouts occupied space on the side of the bowl. In the middle, four sizeable strips of grilled chicken sat on top of the wavy noodles we had picked.
At ten bucks a bowl, the ramen at Ari’s was a bit pricey in my opinion for the amount of ingredients that accompanied it. To compare, Tampopo in the Super G shopping center adds mushrooms and an egg in addition to sprouts, meat and green onion to their ramen, all for the same price. Still, the Ari’s version satisfied with a flavorful broth and al dente noodles that complemented the brisk afternoon.
The side of shrimp katsu was also overpriced for the portion, but delicious. Panko fried until golden brown, the three pieces of crispy shrimp let out an audible crunch when bitten into. Try it with the tonkatsu (not to be confused with tonkotsu) sauce and mustard.
In the end, I would go back for the onigiri. It’s just rice, protein and seaweed but when done right, it’s just damn good comfort food.
In Ari’s version, lumps of tuna mayo (which is basically just tuna salad) and salted salmon sat on top of the balls of rice as well as in the center. The extra protein on top added a layer of flavor and texture that you don’t normally get with regular onigiri, which you kind of have to eat in two bites to get the middle filling distributed evenly with the rice and seaweed. Think like a jelly or custard-filled donut. The restaurant also offers shrimp katsu onigiri; all three flavors cost two bucks a ball.
At the end of the day, most people will come to Ari’s to get their hibachi fix and maybe their ramen. But if you get a chance, branch out and expand your Japanese palette with some curry or onigiri or maybe even some of the katsu options.
There’s more to Japanese food than just hibachi, sushi and ramen.
Trust me, your lunches will be better for it.