Abokichi, which means, "fortunate avocado" in Japanese, started off as a stall at a couple of farmers' markets a few years ago and has now taken over the tiny space that was previously the Annex Hodgepodge by the Dupont TTC station at Spadina. (There's even a cute avocado sapling by the window.)
As a farmers' market stall, partners Jess Mantell and Fumi Tsukamoto sold their own handmade onigiri (Japanese rice balls shaped more like triangles wrapped in nori) and a crunchy oil condiment they coined Okazu (the word means "eat with rice" in Japanese) made with sesame and sunflower oils, miso paste, spices and fried garlic and onion.
Grab-and-go onigiri ($3, $8 for 3) are still available at this permanent shop, with two to three different fillings to choose from each day, including chili & stewed kelp with Okazu, pickled ginger & red shiso, beet & pickled plum and a sweet and savoury Gomoku (shiitake, fried tofu, burdock root and carrot). They make for a quick, affordable and filling snack.
Onigiri is sold in every convenience store in Japan (making 7-Elevens there infinitely better than Canada's), where Tsukamoto is originally from and where she met Mantell (a Toronto native), who lived, studied and worked there for seven years. Before they left Tokyo, Mantell got the recipes from their fave onigiri shop so she could make them herself here.
Mantell occasionally runs make-your-own onigiri workshops and the Abokichi shop sells onigiri moulds ($25) imported from Tokyo that are made from Magnolia wood. "We want to spread the onigiri gospel," she says.
All the onigiri here are vegetarian, with some even vegan and/or gluten-free, and they're all made with a special haiga-mai rice, which means "half-milled" and is somewhere between the white and brown versions; it's missing the hard outer bran but still has the soft inner protein (the germ), so it tastes like white rice but is more nutritious.
Jars of Okazu ($6 for 125mL, $10 for 250mL) are sold in mild chili or curry flavours, and were originally intended as a side dish with rice, but customers have found new uses for the condiment, like putting it in sandwiches, on eggs or using it as a marinade for meat. Products made by fellow farmers' market friends can also be found on the retail shelf.
Menu-wise, the ladies have kept most of the Hodgepodge's offerings with a few new tweaks and additions of their own.
Along with vegan soups and wraps, freshly squeezed juices like the Red Zinger ($5.99) - a combo of apple, beet, ginger and lime - are a Hodgepodge holdover, except now with the option of adding a shot of Amazake ($1.50), a naturally sweet, non-alcoholic sake-like drink they make themselves from fermented rice that's supposed to have probiotic properties.
Tsukamoto tells me she drinks it on its own ($3.89) every day for breakfast.
Gourmet grilled sandwiches that use Ace Bakery bread go for $8.85 or $11.49 as a combo with a soup or salad. The day we visit, Tsukamoto is experimenting with one she calls The Sugamo, containing fresh veggies like alfalfa sprouts and thinly sliced carrots, pickled ginger, Asiago cheese, mashed adzuki beans, miso paste and a sweet vinaigrette.
An exception to the $8.85 price is The Madison ($9.35, $11.99 as a combo), which was a Hodgepodge signature sandwich. It's a palate-pleasing composition of grilled chicken, basil-and-sundried tomato Havarti, fresh tomato and chipotle mayo.
Its price has gone up 50 cents because they decided to switch to ethically raised chickens from Sanagan's for their meat. They believe you can taste the difference, and I have to agree. Happier chickens are tastier chickens.
As for dessert, they've recruited a French baker to create sweets that also have Japanese influences. There's a lovely matcha "beanie" ($2.50) made with the nutritious leftover organic soy pulp (called okara) from tofu-making. It kind of tastes like a green tea brownie with a shortbread-like bottom. A "darker" version is also made with red adzuki beans.
Old Hodgepodge regulars shouldn't be too unsettled by the changes that have taken place here; in fact, they may even end up discovering some new favourites.
Photos by Morris Lum