It’s fitting that Onibaba, one of the most anticipated restaurants of the year, opened very quietly a week ago.
Onibaba’s owners are famous — if that’s possible — for being publicity-adverse. For nearly three decades until closing at the end of 2022, their restaurant Tsukushinbo had no exterior sign, website, or any social media account. It attracted Ichiro and other Japanese dignitaries for its varied menu, including blackboard items listed in Japanese like “ika special”— squid simmered in its own guts. Its Friday-only lunch ramen, a carb-heavy bargain that included gyoza and rice with the shoyu ramen, attracted pre-opening lines of noodle fanatics long before the ramen trend really hit Seattle.
Husband-and-wife team Masayoshi “Mike” and Sayoko Caccam founded the restaurant in 1994. When Mike passed away unexpectedly in 2016, Marin Caccam and her brother Sho assumed larger roles in the restaurant their parents had run for so long. Soon after, they started thinking about how they could honor the legacy of Tsukushinbo while also refreshing the space, ultimately deciding to create two restaurants in their available property. With minor modification to the existing space, Tsukushinbo became Onibaba.
Walk in and the scene looks largely the same, save for the removal of the wrap-around sushi counter. But looming large upon entering is a caricature of a devilish-looking lady making onigiri — rice balls, as they’re called, though they’re typically triangle-shaped. This is the onibaba, Marin explains, a play on words since “baba” is an insulting way to say old lady, “oni” is short for onigiri, and “onibaba” means a demon hag or devil woman. “It works,” Marin says, “because my mom and I are known to be very scary when we’re in the kitchen.”
In Japan, onigiri is a popular snack food that sells for as little as about a dollar each at convenience stores. Onibaba puts a finer twist on their version, using quality rice and seaweed for the wrapping, and stuffing them generously with a variety of fillings. Sake (salty salmon) and shrimp tempura are popular protein fillings, while ume (sour plum) is an especially popular vegetarian option. There are currently 18 varieties, with more planned for the future, plus various spam musubi options and also several types of yaki onigiri— grilled rice balls dipped in sweet soy sauce.
Also central to the menu is ochazuke, a traditional Japanese dish made by pouring tea over white rice, akin to porridge. “Ochazuke is not very common in Seattle, so not many people know it, but from 30 years of experience working and cooking here at Tsukushinbo, I believe we helped a lot of customers to start appreciating ochazuke,” Marin says. “During the pandemic, I realized that ochazuke became a kind of boom, so I wanted to make it a big part of Onibaba.”
Instead of tea, Onibaba’s ochazuke includes a pour of delicate dashi broth. Toppings include oyako (salty salmon with roe), saba (grilled mackerel with ginger), and unagi (grilled eel) over a grilled rice ball. All orders of ochazuke come with sides of hiyayakko (chilled tofu with toppings) and pickles.
In addition to onigiri and ochazuke, Onibaba’s menu includes an assortment of Tsukushinbo’s classic and comforting rice bowls. These donburi include katsu (fried pork or chicken cutlet, also available as a curry option), grilled eel, and pork belly with onions. There are also a number of ippin (small plate) items such as agedashi tofu, kinpira gobo (braised burdock root with carrot and lotus root), karaage (fried chicken), and gyoza.
Now that Onibaba is open, the Caccams are eagerly working on Kakurenbo right next door, with plans for a bar on the first floor and a sushi counter on the second. (Construction and permitting takes time when you’re in a 150-year-old historic building.) Word is that Betsutenjin, currently open in Capitol Hill, will open a branch of their tonkotsu-style ramen in the same strip, hopefully helping to revitalize Nihonmachi, the historic hub of Japanese culture in Seattle.
“I want Japantown to expand and have more foot traffic,” Marin says. “We serve lunch and dinner meals, but we will be open throughout the day for customers who want to come in for one or two onigiri and a beer.”
Diners simply need to find the place. There are still no plans for an exterior sign, but Onibaba now has an Instagram account and might have a Facebook page in its future.