It starts with the rice, perfectly seasoned and the shortest short grain around. Shuai Wang, who owns Short Grain with his wife Corrie, says this rice is key to everything. He orders it special, and his purveyor says he is the only one in Charleston using it. "It's a premium brand from California," said Shuai the other night over rice bowls at FIG. "We polish it a couple of times to remove the starch and soak it so it cooks evenly." Once cooked in his induction Zojirushi rice cooker, the grains are seasoned with a mixture of sushi vinegar, salt, sugar, and kombu. "We don't cut corners on quality."
That rice forms the basis for all of Short Grain's dishes, which range from the karaage don to the local veggie poke to whatever inspired Shuai that day at the market. In Japan, they say people choose their sushi restaurants based on the rice, and after being wooed by Short Grain's impeccable grains, I can understand this obsession.
Ah, but the rice is just one component of the O.G. Shuai sources the freshest fish he can find from Abundant Seafood's Mark Marhefka — my most recent bowl featured slivers of beeliner. Wasabi and ginger provide familiar flavors while house-made puffed rice adds tons of crunch. Ponzu punches it up with its combination of salty, sweet, and tart. Spicy mayo layers on a velvety heat. The masago throws in some pop. Pickled cucumbers and ginger cuts through the heat. And a liberal sprinkling of furikake seasoning brings it all together for a happy party in your mouth.
Are you obsessed yet? No matter where I encounter Shuai and Corrie's tiny food trailer (it's really not much of a truck), the long line always makes me worried that by the time I get to place my order, Corrie will have already chalked a line through the O.G. and I'll be unable to get my fix.
In the short year and a half that the Short Grain truck has been on the streets of Charleston, they have accumulated plenty of obsessive fans, including Jason Stanhope, executive chef at FIG. "We first met Jason at the ramen popup at the Daily last January," remembers Shuai, as he digs into a bowl of Carolina rice middlins smothered in an obscene amount of uni, caviar, and egg yolks that Stanhope has made in his honor. "He came back the next day with the entire FIG crew, and he was helping us wash dishes and he brought us gifts of crab and truffles. We were like, what are you doing? We're just serving eggs and noodles!"
Stanhope vividly remembers his first time eating Short Grain's food. "Oh, the uni rolls. I really loved the zucchini fritters. The okonomiyaki. The batter was so good."
For the James Beard award-winning chef, it's the rice that connects him and Shuai to each other and his own Japanese heritage. Stanhope's Japanese-American grandfather was sent to an internment camp during World War II. "Shuai is clearly a panda, and my spirit animal," he jokes. When Shuai and Corrie show up at his restaurant, Stanhope loves creating his own rice bowl riffs, so it only made sense to meet them at FIG and see one of Charleston's best chefs pay homage to the O.G.
In preparation, Stanhope had called around town procuring the perfect products for our rice bowls from friends in other kitchens. "We have such a respect for rice in our kitchen and it bonds us to people who care about rice," he says, as he lays down a bowl of rice with wasabi, ginger, and slices of fresh fish. As I gobble it up, I begin to think that maybe Jason and Shuai ought to team up for a Japanese restaurant. Can you imagine?
With people like Stanhope chasing the O.G. dragon around town, it's no surprise that Andrew Knowlton at Bon Appétit
found his way to the Short Grain window in the True Value parking lot and scarfed down, in his words, "the onigiri (those triangular rice cakes), here stuffed with everything from spicy local yellowfin tuna to pickled green tomatoes." Short Grain made Knowlton's list of the 50 best new restaurants, no small feat for a food truck in a country packed with competition.
What it comes down to, as always, is the love. Shuai and Corrie relocated to Charleston from New York because they were in love with each other but worn out and bitter, working their tails off in New York for little reward. "I started hating the city," says Shuai, who moved to Queens from China at the age of 9. He and Corrie met while working at the same restaurant. She was a writer from Buffalo, waiting tables to pay the bills. After their restaurant gig ended, they started traveling to find a new place to live, somewhere far away from the smelly streets and overpriced real estate of New York City. "Charleston was like vacation-land," says Corrie, a novelist who sold her first young adult book to Disney, set to be published next spring. "And everyone really is friendly."
The two moved to town, looked at pretty much every single possible space available, and then took a friend's suggestion to start with a food truck. They bought one, without negotiating, and Short Grain was born. They've been learning on the job, making mistakes and adjustments along the way, just as any entrepreneur does. "We workshopped that original menu so hard," says Corrie, "but now it changes almost daily."
"Yeah," agrees Shuai, "at first we were trying to fit the palate of Charleston but then we said, screw it, and just started pleasing ourselves."
Seems to have worked out just fine. Now, when can I get another one of those O.G.s?
The O.G. is a stealth dish. If you've ever had one, you know what I'm talking about. A couple days after your first bite, a craving for Short Grain's creative riff on chirashi will sneak up on you like a ninja, taking you hostage and not letting go until you can get your hands on another one.