East Los Musubi is a pop-up food stand that is spreading the gospel of Hawaii’s snack staple to the inner city barrios of the mainland. However, not before making it their own.
East Los Angeles and Hawaii may have absolutely nothing in common, except, apparently, one thing: a love for Spam musubi. And it is all thanks to East Los Musubi, a pop-up food stand that is spreading the gospel of Hawaii's snack staple to the inner city barrios of the mainland.
As foodways tend to go, the company has made the working-class dish completely its own. Their small menu includes a glorious, crunchy, meaty, juicy, Flamin' Hot Cheeto-crusted Spam musubi with a spicy chamoy sauce, a chorizo and eggs version with an aioli made with Valentina hot sauce, and a vegan yakiniku tofu musubi.
The humble company was born from the passions of Doreen Nakama, Adam Martinez, and Benjie Escobar. According to Nakama, a Japanese-Mexican-American by way of Hawaii and Tijuana, every musubi she makes is an ode to her late Hawaiian-Japanese grandfather who fought in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. "He would always make musubis for me and we took them everywhere. They serve as my connection with him now." In addition to musubi, Nakama is also known for baking over-the-top cakes upon request.
Nakama's husband Martinez hadn't tried musubi until meeting her 19 years ago, but now he helps on the makeshift cooking line wherever East Los Musubi decides to set up. He has worked in some prestigious kitchens across LA, but he is now a proud cafeteria manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We're doing musubis taquero-style, meaning freshly assembled and wrapped to order," he says, "since you usually only find musubis that have been sitting for a while and the flavor is different on those." The third business partner, Escobar, used to work as a designer for The Hundreds clothing brand. He lends his urban lifestyle aesthetic to East Los Musubi's own line of shirts, too.
Nakama's heritage, Martinez's food industry expertise, and Escobar's artistic eye have combined to form a food subculture phenomenon taking place in the bumpy streets of Eastern and Northeast LA. Recent pop-up locations have included a Chicano clothing shop in Highland Park called Shop Mi Vida, a pop culture clothing store in Adams Square called HutchLA, and Self Help Graphics in the formerly Japanese neighborhood of Boyle Heights. They sell out nearly every time.
Despite how stunty some of their musubi variations may sound, Martinez and Nakama assure me that they all come straight from the heart. "Spam musubis aren't broken, so we're not trying to fix it," Martinez tells me. But how would a Flamin' Hot Cheeto-crusted musubi perform in the motherland of Hawaii? A quick text to Hawaiian chef Mark "Gooch" Noguchi—who goes by @Musubman on Instagram and whose unabashed love of the canned luncheon meat is no secret—reveals that the Cheeto mashup it is not as farfetched of a variation as you might think. "Along with everything else culturally connected, interpretation will always prevail."
As for goals down the line, the East Los Musubi team informs me that they are just going with the flow. They're getting ready to set up shop at a Japanese classic car show and are about to hit their two-year anniversary as a business. A food truck wouldn't be too out of the question, and either would a brick-and-mortar, if they find one in their area in East LA. One thing is for sure, however: Nakama and Martinez are both overdue for a research and development trip to Hawaii, which they haven't visited since having kids 15 years ago.
For Nakama, musubi continues to connect her with her roots and inspire her through the musubi-based stories she hears from her customers. She shares that at a recent pop-up, some older Latino customers told her about eating the dish during World War II, when they had to take care the houses of the Japanese families in the area that were sent off to internment camps.
"Being mixed and growing up in these two cultures, musubis have allowed me to make peace with my past."