Omakase stars. Chirashi bowls. Sushi burritos. Let’s face it, fresh sushi never goes out of style in the Bay, and right now handrolls are having a moment. And we’re not talking about a traditional temaki roll wrapped like an ice cream cone, but rather a new school of handroll folded like a taco. It’s easy to understand the appeal — who can resist a cute repackaging of spicy hamachi, ready to scoop up and pop into your mouth, chased perhaps with a fresh beer or sake?
Kyle Itani likes that handrolls feel a little less reverential, compared to an omakase master setting down every single bite. But also he believes that they’re tastier than your average takeout rolls (those tight cylinders would be maki), which quickly become one texture and temperature, save perhaps a sliver of cucumber for crunch.
“The reason why this is better is because you have really crispy nori, warm rice, and cold fish,” he said. “So you have all those contrasting elements.”
Itani opened Yonsei Handrolls in Uptown Oakland in October 2022, joining his other restaurants Hopscotch a couple of blocks away (which he closed earlier this month after 11 years of service), and Itani Ramen just next door. Yonsei literally means “fourth generation,” because Itani is the great-grandchild of Japanese immigrants. He played with a couple of different concepts through the pandemic, but ultimately decided to break with sushi tradition. He said he considered what to do to really make it fun — plus he also just loved the idea of the handrolls, “because there’s so much more creativity.”
The restaurant serves handrolls racked upright in wooden blocks shaped like half pipes. Itani likes the nori a little longer and hitched higher on one side. That way when you fold it over, there’s a flap that’s never touched the rice, so it stays crackling. But he says handrolls are also surprisingly easy to make at home. In fact his 7-year-old daughter frequently demands cucumber and tobiko for dinner. In which case, Itani simply drops all the ingredients on the table, so family and friends can build their own handrolls.
Make sure to get sashimi grade fish from a source that you trust; Itani recommends Tokyo Fish Market, Yaoya-San, or Berkeley Bowl. Seek out short-grain sushi rice, such as his favorite brand, Tamanishiki, available in a small 4-lb bag that’s not too pricey. The restaurant does special order nori that’s extra snappy and “crazy expensive,” but there are many different brands, so crush a few until you find a favorite. Just don’t go with the single snack packs, which can be deep fried, but rather the actual sushi sheets that are dry roasted, ideally cut into the half size.
“Really the hardest part is making the rice,” Itani laughs. “If you have a rice cooker, it’s easy.” Rinsing the grains several times helps remove excess starch and keep them beautifully separated. The warm rice gets sprinkled with sushi vinegar, which can be bought premade by the bottle, but only requires a quick simmer of a few pantry staples. If you don’t have the finest knife or the steadiest hand, the trick is to pop the fish in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm it up. Finally, Itani waits to toast the nori last, wafting it over a burner until fragrant.
You don’t even need any special equipment, no bamboo rolling mats required. But Itani does hit the button on his rice cooker. “Everyone should buy a rice cooker. They’re just so easy. It’s a piece of equipment that does one thing and does it perfectly every time.” And he does recommend a good sharp knife, whether it’s Japanese or German.
But even if you make a hack of the hamachi, “Don’t worry,” Itani says. “The flavors are all there. It’s pretty pure, because you’re just eating the ingredients, which is kind of nice.” So crack a cute Japanese beer with a kitten on the label and keep rolling. “Just lay it all out and have fun.”
How to make sushi handrolls
These recipes offer enough components for four servings, with several different fresh fillings to mix and match. You could totally just grab one type of fish for a busy weeknight. But as long as you’re laying it all out, why not slice and dice a few options to make it a handroll party.
Makes 4 servings
1½ cups short-grain sushi rice
1 cup rice vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 piece kombu, about 2 inches square
Rinse and drain the rice several times, until the water runs clear. Transfer the rice to a rice cooker, add 1½ cups water, and cook until tender. Spread the cooked rice out in a large bowl and let cool for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the sushi vinegar. In a small saucepan over low heat, stir together the vinegar, sugar, salt, and kombu. Bring to just below a simmer, just until the sugar has completely dissolved.
While the rice is still warm, sprinkle with ⅓ cup of the sushi vinegar. Fold gently to combine, taking care not to mash the grains, in order to keep them distinct. Serve the sushi rice while still slightly warm to the touch.
1 package sushi nori, half sheets
You can simply open a package of nori sheets, which come ready to serve. But you can also toast them until extra crispy. Turn a burner to high, hold a nori sheet a couple of feet above the open flame, and wave until toasted and fragrant, just a few seconds. Stack the toasted nori sheets on a plate and serve right away.
Negihama (hamachi and scallion) handrolls
½ lb hamachi, sashimi grade
1 or 2 green onions
Cut the hamachi into small dice. Slice the green parts of the green onions. Combine the hamachi and green onions on the cutting board, and mince them together, to help the flavor crush and combine. Transfer the hamachi mixture to a small bowl and season with salt. To make each handroll, take a half sheet of toasted nori, line with a couple of spoonfuls of the sushi rice, and top with about 1 ounce of the hamachi mixture.
Zuke Maguro (marinated ahi tuna) handrolls
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ lb ahi tuna, sashimi grade
Sliced green onions
In a small saucepan, combine the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar has completely dissolved and the alcohol has evaporated, 3 minutes. Let cool, transfer to a container, and chill completely. Cut the ahi into small cubes. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the marinade and let rest, 3 to 5 minutes. To make each handroll, take a half sheet of toasted nori and line with a couple of spoonfuls of the sushi rice. Top with about 1 ounce of the ahi mixture and sprinkle with sliced green onions.
Salmon belly handrolls
½ lb salmon belly, sashimi grade
Yuzu kosho (citrus-chile paste)
Truffle salt, such as Urbani
Thinly slice the salmon belly across the grain. Add a dab of yuzu kosho to each slice of salmon belly (just like you might with wasabi). To make each handroll, take a half sheet of toasted nori and line with a couple of spoonfuls of the sushi rice. Top with 1 or 2 slices of salmon belly and sprinkle with the truffle salt.