Like most folks stuck at home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Nathan Bounphisai was bored. A graphic designer obsessed with onigiri, the protein-stuffed rice balls that are a lunchtime staple in Japan, Bounphisai decided to try his hand at making the dish, and thus Inusan Onigiri, one of the city’s most exciting new pop-ups, was born.
Before COVID, Bounphisai was a frequent traveler who envied the onigiri shops he visited in cities like New York and Los Angeles. “They have so many more options, and after seeing that variety, I wondered why Dallas didn’t have any,” he says. “So one day I just decided to give it a shot.”
As he prepared the menu and format for his pop-ups, Bounphisai looked to other popular Dallas pop-ups, like Japanese sando favorite Sandoitchi, which has since expanded to cities across the country and earned fans in celebrities like Chrissy Teigen. He chose a name — “inu,” a reference to the shiba inu dog breed, and “san,” a Japanese honorific, came together to make Inusan, which roughly translates to “Mr. Dog” — inspired by a character Bounphisai drew years ago that would eventually become the mascot of Inusan Onigiri.
When the idea for Inusan Onigiri came, Bounphisai had no formal experience in restaurant kitchens. He’d worked at boba tea shops in the past, but quickly learned that making onigiri was more complicated than he’d imagined. He enlisted a chef friend, whose family is from Okinawa, to help perfect the most essential part of the onigiri: the rice. “It’s one of those things that’s so simple and so complex at the same time,” he says. “Different types of rice make a huge difference. We tried so many brands of rice, and I’ll never forget when my friends finally tried a good onigiri, one that didn’t fall apart.”
As soon as he’d figured out how to make the perfect onigiri rice, Bounphisai started experimenting with flavor combinations to stuff inside. First came classics like egg salad and tuna with mayo or umeboshi (pickled plum), then more inventive creations like a recent collaboration with smoked meats pop-up Crack Brisket that paired pork belly burnt ends with crisp pickled cucumbers. To a large extent, Bounphisai has to be strategic in what he chooses as fillings for his onigiri. “It’s meant to be eaten at any time of day, so all the ingredients that go in there have to be able to last,” he says. “That’s why you see so many pickled ingredients. They have antibacterial properties and preserve the food. There’s a science to it.”
Now, more than a year into running Inusan Onigiri, Bounphisai is selling upwards of 300 onigiri at each of his pop-up events. Most of those sales come through the pop-up’s website, which opens up for ordering about a week before each event, held at spots like popular boba shop Feng Cha in Addison. He starts preparing the fillings for and molding the onigiri at 7 a.m. on the morning of each event to ensure that the onigiri are as fresh as possible.
Recently, Bounphisai added sweet Japanese sandos stuffed with fresh fruit and whipped cream spiked with flavors like yuzu, matcha, and ube to his menu. Those have proven to be especially popular, even if they are challenging for him to make. “It sounds simple, to just cut the crusts off and package it, but it’s a very tedious process,” he says. “But we’re really trying to go for the aesthetics of 7-Eleven in Japan, and the wrapper is part of that. In a way it feels like when you spend a lot of time wrapping Christmas presents and you give it to someone and they just rip all the paper off.”
When asked whether or not he’s planning to bring his own onigiri shop to Dallas, like those he loves in New York and California, Bounphisai says that he’s keeping that idea on the back burner. “At the moment, I’m really comfortable with the pop-ups,” he says. “I’m still exploring my creativity and growing the menu. That’s the thing with pop-ups that’s really good — we can just keep testing and testing and see what works. When I’m fully satisfied with the full menu, we might see about how we could take it to the next level.”
Insuan Onigiri will host its next pop-up on October 2, at Feng Cha on Lower Greenville. Scope out the pop-up’s website for more details.