Nice Rice Things [restaurant review]

Rice Things, a destination for basic Japanese food, has new owners, menu, and attitude

Rice Things owner Lance Matsumoto and server Deyanira Nolazco. Photos by JP Cordero.

There’s a type of place that doesn’t often get attention from reviewers, but that just about everybody visits on at least an occasional basis. They do a solid job without calling attention to themselves. It can be a blind spot, like furniture you don’t notice details of because it’s always there.

I noticed an example of this when someone asked if I had ever reviewed Rice Things, which has been holding down a spot on Artesia Boulevard for decades. Sure, I said, and then looked to see when I last wrote about them. Hmmm, that was 2003. Still, it’s not as though much would change there, because it’s a place a Brit would call a “cheap and cheerful” cafe – one you enjoy but wouldn’t take someone you wanted to impress. The menu, centered on basic sushi and combo plates with rice, might be expected to stay just as it was.

In fact changes have happened at Rice Things in the last year or two. The most memorable thing about the first incarnation was the owner, who was notoriously grouchy towards both customers and staff. The business changed hands in December of 2019 and since then there has been a shift in menu, coupled with a change in attitude. The Matsumoto family has added a few Hawaiian items to the mix and is making standard items using family recipes. The Mabo tofu is gone, replaced by poke bowls, spam musubi, and fried chicken wings.

On recent visits the sushi rolls were not as beautifully crafted as you’d get at a high-end sushi bar, but that’s reasonable given that the most expensive ones on the menu cost less than ten bucks. This is sushi as simple street food, which was how it started in Japan. The closest that comes to a fancy presentation is their “Super California roll,” made with snow crab meat, avocado, cucumber, and a dash of mayo, and topped with masago (tiny smelt roe). Most places at this price point would have used surimi or other crab substitutes, and I’m glad Rice Things didn’t. The masago added a moist, gently salty crunch to an item that would otherwise be a bit bland. A crunchy roll with cucumber, tempura shrimp, avocado, and peppery radish sprouts had a gentle kick from their homemade “spicy” mayonnaise. I put spicy in quotes for a reason – the heat is very moderate, but that’s all to the good because it doesn’t overwhelm the natural seafood and vegetable flavors. The same was true of a spicy salmon roll, which included a non-mayo spice sauce that added flavor but almost no heat.

One of the new items on the menu is Chinese chicken salad, and though I ordered this I can’t review it in detail, because they forgot to put the dressing in the take-out bag. I picked up my meal minutes before closing time and didn’t notice the omission until I got home and unpacked things, and when I called the restaurant I got their voicemail. I was surprised when a manager called back after a few minutes and offered to deliver some dressing to my home. By then I had already made some from our family recipe so I declined, but I was impressed by the customer service. The salad was large and had plenty of chicken and crisp wonton chips, though it was missing the black sesame seeds that usually give this salad little bursts of smoky, nutty crunch.

An array of food at Rice Things. Center, a bowl of udon noodle soup, right, sesame chicken, below and left, sushi, top left, poke bowl.

We tried two noodle soups, the tempura udon and tonkatsu ramen noodle. Both were packaged with the broth separate so the noodles don’t get soggy, which is as it should be. The udon were in a homemade vegetarian broth made from soy and seaweed, the tonkatsu in a pork bone broth that was described as “light.” Some specialty soup noodle restaurants pride themselves on making an intense tonkatsu broth, but that’s not to everyone’s taste. This one was mild and flavorful but not oily, which is how many people prefer it.

The other items we tried were a poke bowl and chicken fried rice, which are relatively new items, and a pork katsu curry. As is typical of Japanese curries the sauce was very mild, and once again it was packaged warm and on the side. Their curry is made in-house, not common at this price point, and is fragrant with herbs and spices. If you haven’t tried Japanese curries before, this would be a good place to start.

I ordered the poke bowl with half tuna and half salmon, which they will do at no extra charge. The amount of fish was generous, but I found the sauce a bit too salty and would ask them to back off a bit next time. The fried rice was the only item I didn’t particularly like because it was a bit dry, probably fried with too little oil. It’s almost undoubtedly healthier that way, but nobody orders fried rice as health food.

No desserts are offered, but if you need something to finish the meal, stop by Trader Joe’s or another good market beforehand and get some mochi ice cream or red bean buns. Be aware that you might not eat them because portion sizes on everything are ample. The Matsumotos have kept that and the other good attributes of this strip mall stalwart, and what they have changed they have made better.

Rice Things is at 2401 Artesia in Redondo. Open Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m – 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., Sa-Su 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.  Parking lot, some vegetarian items, no alcohol served.. Phone (310) 214-9033. SouthBayRiceThings.com. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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