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Japanese treat: Mogu Mogu offers ever-changing rice bowl menu for lunch crowd

Mogu Mogu has established a unique niche in the city as a Japanese restaurant that caters to the grab-and-go lunch crowd. It’s a rice bowl place with a twist: a creative, ever-changing menu of toppings that gives you the option of having your meal wrapped burrito-style in dried seaweed.

Diners at Mogu Mogu can customize their rice bowls with a wide variety of options, such as curry and fried chicken thighs. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The small restaurant, whose name is a piece of onomatopoeia that translates roughly into “nom nom,” opened about 2½ years in an office park on the west end of Journal Center. Its rather isolated location makes more sense when you learn that founder Tomoko Kase is a former vice president at Kinesio Tape, the therapeutic tape company that occupies the rest of the building.

Even if you’re a veteran of assembly-line restaurants such as Chipotle, the ordering system at Mogu Mogu can be a little bewildering. The chalkboard at the entrance gives you with a basic breakdown and the staff will happily guide first-timers through the process, which involves choosing a base of rice, noodles or salad, a protein, two veggies and toppings. The restaurant keeps customers apprised of daily specials such as simmered kabocha pumpkin and turkey pineapple meatballs through its fun, active Facebook page.

I chose the rice bowl with curry ($8.95) for my base. Curry is often associated with India and Thailand, but the Japanese are arguably more devoted to it, having adopted and adapted it from the English in the 19th century. The Japanese version is made with a roux base and resembles beef gravy.

To top the bowl off, I opted for karaage chicken, marinated chicken thighs coated in a potato starch batter and fried. The veggies, including spicy eggplant, edamame mix, and pickled carrots and daikon radish, made a colorful pile that, along with the rice, formed a kind of shoreline against the curry that took up half the bowl.

The tender chicken’s coating was a revelation: delicate, crisp and not greasy at all. Strips of eggplant and pickled vegetables bring hot and sour flavors to the mix, and the mildly spicy curry ties it all together and helps alleviate the monotony of the rice.

The “roll-it” option at Mogu Mogu presents rice bowl choices, including ginger-marinated pork shoulder and green beans, in a dried seaweed wrapper. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

If you’ve ever wondered what a burrito would taste like if you swapped out the tortilla for a seaweed wrapper, Mogu Mogu has the answer in the form of its “roll-it” option. It’s everything you can get in a bowl, only rolled in a sheet of dried seaweed known as nori. I went with the overnight ginger pork ($8.95), thin slices of marinated pork shoulder, and then watched as Kase, with the help of a bamboo sushi mat, somehow managed to roll the mound of pork, rice, and vegetables into a burrito-like form.

Although I liked the Japanese-New Mexican fusion of the ginger-flavored pork and the tempura-coated green chile, the burrito to me was less than a sum of its parts, largely because the briny taste of the nori overrode the other flavors. I ended up picking out the vegetables and pork and eating them separately.

Mogu Mogu also offers daily drink and dessert specials. I recommend the hibiscus iced tea ($2.50) for its beautiful, ruby-red color and slightly sweet and tart taste. The rolled strawberry cake ($3.99), a vanilla cake wrapped around a core of sliced strawberries, whipped cream and custard, was a feast for the eyes, but the strawberries inside were still partly frozen.

Dine-in service is no-frills, with about a dozen tables and a self-serve water station. It’s well-staffed, and help is never far away. Sitting there in the small space by the open kitchen, I felt less like a customer and more like a guest, and a little bit envious of the office workers who get to visit regularly.