Last month saw the soft opening of Yonekichi (238A East 9th Street, 646-669-9785), the city’s first storefront devoted to Japanese rice burgers, which use wads of shaped rice in place of buns. But after some lukewarm initial reactions, the shop closed for a few days to fine-tune its recipes, promising an official grand opening soon. Several weeks later, the rice burgers are back on sale, but there’s been no word of that promised grand debut. Still, since Yonekichi is serving food in exchange for money, we stopped in the other day to sample the starchy goods.
Inhabiting the closet-size space that previously held okonomiyaki and takoyaki specialist Otafuku (which moved down the street to slightly larger digs), Yonekichi operates from a to-go window, having done away with the sliver of standing room where hungry passersby would crowd, waiting for their ticket numbers to be called. The fast food concepts share an owner in restaurateur Bon Yagi, who also owns Soba-Ya, Robataya, and Cha-An.
From a menu of seven different combinations of rice burger, we tried four: beef, chicken, eel, and sauteed lotus root. Each unseasoned rice “bun” is about the size and shape of a bar of soap. The fillings fit squarely in the Japanese wheelhouse, so it’s hard not to think of sushi. This is especially true of the unagi burger ($9), which mixes — in familiar American sushi fashion — chopped barbecued eel with slices of avocado. Slathered in sweet, mirin-spiked eel sauce, this is basically just an eel-avocado hand roll without the benefit of a nori casing. Most of the filling tumbles out of the sandwich on first bite.
Despite searing the rice patties for added texture and stability, each burger manages to be quite messy. One of the worst offenders is the lotus root burger ($6.50) with chili threads (one of two vegetarian options; the other features tempura), whose contents tumble to the plate as the rice disintegrates into a sad pile. It’s the most depressing edible magic trick in the world. That it tastes great, with ample crunch and nutty sweetness, is all the worse.
For ease-of-eating, then, your best bets are the red-meat options. Sukiyaki beef ($8) tastes strongly of garlic and soy, but the meat would be so much better in patty form instead of sliced and layered as it is. Plus, it might be nice to actually serve something resembling a burger at a self-proclaimed burger stand. For what it’s worth, we noticed the sliced pork shoulder ($8) also appears to hold together relatively well.
The best burger we tried was just as unwieldy as the other sandwiches, but the ground chicken tsukune patty ($7.75) reminded us of the classic yakitori skewer of chicken meatballs glazed with sweet soy. Hit with scallions, shishito peppers, and a soft-boiled egg (which used to come standard but now costs an extra $1.25), it’s the most successful combination flavor-wise. Sadly, the egg’s bulbous shape makes eating the whole thing difficult.
Completing the fast food theme, there are thick-cut fries to go with your burgers. The “furi furi” potato wedges can be seasoned with three kinds of flavored salts (yuzu, wasabi, and pickled plum-sansho pepper). They’re well-fried as french fries go, but the supposed flavors in the seasoning salts escaped us. The shop also had a special of quick pickles skewered onto bamboo chopsticks, which needed a bit more brining time.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Yagi has peppered our city’s dining landscape with the kinds of dish-specific street and home-cooking establishments more commonly seen in Japan, where rice burgers are ubiquitous. It remains to be seen whether Yagi and his team can incite similar fervor with New York diners. On the whole, prices feel high, especially when some of the city’s best American-style hamburgers can be had for less, and most fall in a similar price range as Yonekichi’s offerings. Between that and the fact that unseasoned rice pucks don’t seem to be the best delivery system for these ingredients, it’s hard to see things playing out well. Perhaps that old adage applies here: When in doubt, fry it.