Officially opening its doors at the beginning of January, the cleverly named onigiri cafe and bar Sankaku—which means "triangle" in Japanese—opened its first permanent location inside Melrose Market on Capitol Hill. The Rie Otsuka-owned and operated venture is a lunch bar, offering a core rotation of four different kinds of onigiris, which are Japanese stuffed rice balls wrapped with nori, alongside equally savory sides and booze.
Otsuka obtained Sankaku's lease last summer but said the buildout process took a while. Now open, the stall looks sleek and welcoming. A neon sign with Sankuku's logo gleams against the white-tile backsplash. Two wide birch-colored bar countertops have plenty of space for customers to spread out. During this Omicron-wave, most have opted to take their food to go—onigiri lends itself well to the bottoms of backpacks and purses—so Otsuka uses the counter to pleasingly arrange plastic-wrapped onigiri in neat rows.
On a recent afternoon visit, I had two of Sankaku's classic onigiris: the ume konbu (salty pickled plum with konbu, a type of edible kelp) and the tuna mayo (flaky Albacore tuna doused in kewpie mayo with sesame seeds). Unlike traditional onigiri that has all the filling in a compacted center, Sankaku disperses it throughout the ball so that each bite is a delicate mix of rice and filling.
"It's just a really homestyle [onigiri]. You can do whatever you want; it's just like a sandwich, there are no rules," she said, noting that her mother made triangle-shaped onigiri hence the name Sankaku.
The balls themselves are moist and firm, while the sides have a whole lot of cronch:
I found myself in a satisfying rhythm of rice ball, cucumber, rice ball, cucumber, ascending to a kind of textural heaven.
Otsuka said she drew inspiration from her mother's onigiri, which she made with traditional pickled plum at the center. Growing up in Yokohama, Japan—a city just to the south of Tokyo—Otsuka wanted to live in the U.S. After high school, she eventually made her way here, living in Portland and New York City before settling in Seattle for good. She always had a grandma-like love of cooking for others throughout it all.
"I just want to keep feeding people all my life," she said while placing plastic-wrapped onigiri on a plate.
After starting Sankaku as a pop-up inside the nearby Marseille three years ago, Otsuka managed to keep business going throughout the pandemic, continuing to sling onigiri from Melrose Market and also popping up inside Chinatown-International District's Gift Shop and Capitol Hill's La Dive last year.
At $5 to $6, Sankaku's onigiris are a little more expensive than the ones you might find inside a typical Japanese convenience store. But they also run slightly bigger and are loaded with organic, gluten- and dairy-free ingredients. Sankaku's offerings are pescatarian, with just as many vegetarian onigiris (like the yummy nasu miso made of eggplant and miso) as fish-based ones (the salmon basil is my go-to because it's both filling and refreshing).
In addition to grub, Sankaku also has a slowly-expanding drink menu. Notably, Otsuka offers three different kinds of one-cup sakes that each have a peel-off lid, something that she says has a funny association back in Japan with old men slurping them down on the street. Regardless, she finds the portable sakes "cute" and light enough to go along with the food.
And don't sleep on the non-alcoholic drinks either. The tea in Sankaku's iced green tea comes from the venerated Redmond-based Sugimoto Tea Company. And their yuzu soda is bright, citrusy, and tastes exactly like summer in liquid form (if you want, it can be made alcoholic with the addition of vodka, rum, or gin). Otsuka is currently in the process of adding more cocktails and wine to the menu, with the hope of hiring a bartender once in-person dining becomes less of a health risk.
Right now, Sankaku is open from 1 pm - 7 pm—prime lunch and dinner hours—but Otsuka aims to transition to 12 pm - 9 pm as they get more on their feet, shaping the food and drink menu along the way. Despite the uncertainty that comes with COVID, I think Sankaku is primed to become a hot lunch spot on the Hill. And it's been a long-time coming. Back in 2019, when Sankaku was just a pop-up, Otsuka told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that she had dreams of starting a permanent lunch café. It is well worth the wait.
Sankaku Onigiri Cafe & Bar is located on 1531 Melrose Ave and open from 1 pm - 7 pm, Monday through Sunday.