Haraneco Café rolls out comfort food from Japan

Teresa Mathew
Yuko Kaneko and Erika Hara demonstrate the onigiri they serve at their new market stand.  

As Erika Hara rubs pink salt between her hands and begins to shape a handful of warm rice, she explains that onigiri—Japanese rice balls—are “like our lives.” Not only because she and her collaborator Yuko Kaneko make an abundance of the soft, triangular parcels every weekend, but because they are ubiquitous in her memories of growing up in Japan. Rice balls are a quintessential Japanese comfort food: a breakfast, snack or lunch, perfectly sized to be cradled in a palm. They are something kids grow up eating on road trips and in school cafeterias. 

Now, visitors to the Point Reyes Farmers Market are able to get their own hands on onigiri—as well as other traditional Japanese dishes—at the Haraneco Café. Ms. Hara and Ms. Kaneko started their market stall the first Saturday of July and are aiming to expand West Marin’s view of Japanese food beyond sushi to foods that they themselves love. 

“I wasn’t sure if we would have an audience or not,” Ms. Kaneko admitted, but she knew her rice balls already had some devotees at the Inverness and West Marin Schools. “I always pack rice balls for my kids’ lunch boxes, and some [classmates] say, ‘Oh my god, I love your onigiris.’”

Ms. Kaneko and her family moved to Inverness from Massachusetts two years ago after her husband found carpentry work in the area. She knew how to work with her hands—she had previously worked as a manicurist and baked at home—but had no professional culinary experience. After moving to Point Reyes Station, she began working at Brickmaiden Breads as a pastry chef, making scones, cookies and crackers. 

Soon, people started telling her and Ms. Hara that they needed to meet. One day, Ms. Kaneko happened to be walking by the thrift store as Ms. Hara—who works there—was speaking Japanese. Ms. Kaneko’s ears pricked up and she popped in. “Immediately, we clicked,” Ms. Hara said. “I think it was obvious we were interested in cooking and were missing Japanese food a lot—whenever we would hang out, we would make Japanese lunch.” 

Ms. Hara had moved to Point Reyes Station the year before. After a relationship in New York ended, she was prepared to move back to Japan. But her best friend begged her to come out to San Francisco first, and once there she enrolled at Bauman College, a holistic culinary school in Berkeley. While Ms. Hara had always loved cooking, she had never considered it as a career. But at a time in her life when she felt lost, she grasped for the one passion she knew she had and decided to feed it.

At Bauman, Ms. Hara met Elizabeth Hill, who leads food and farm tours in West Marin, and began volunteering at her events. The stints eventually led to a part-time job offer in Heidrun Meadery’s tasting room, and Ms. Hara decided to forgo the office job in Japan that she had already accepted in order to move to West Marin and try her luck in the food world. 

She now works at the thrift store and as a chef at Mesa Refuge. She lives in Point Reyes Station with her husband, Arron Wilder, and their 5-month-old son Issay. 

Ms. Hara was pregnant when Yuko first suggested a farmer’s market booth, but she was too excited to let the idea go. “Everything just fell into place,” she said. “Once Issay was born, I had three months to settle down and then we started at the farmer’s market. It’s been kind of hard, but at the same time really exciting because this is both of our dreams coming into shape.”

The partnership between the two women functions like a law of motion: without the other, each said, they would have remained inert. Instead, they are propelled to create something new: meeting with collaborators, making signs, inventing recipes. “It’s awesome,” Ms. Kaneko said. “I could never do that by myself.”

Mr. Wilder came up with the stand’s name, Haraneco, which actually has two meanings. On its face, it’s a mix of both women’s last names—Hara and Kaneko. But it’s also a pun: in Japanese, “hara” means “belly” and “neco” means “cat.” They call their stall’s different combination plates “big cat treats” and “little cat treats.”

The Haraneco Café debuted on July 7, and the first day was “absolute chaos,” Ms. Kaneko said. When a chef at the market’s demonstration booth failed to appear, Ms. Hara was roped into a presentation. 

“I couldn’t say no—we’re both Japanese, we don’t know how to say no!” Ms. Hara said. “But in my mind I was like, ‘Hell no, there’s no way we can handle this.’” 

Elizabeth Hollis, the manager of the Point Reyes Farmers Market, underscored how hard the pair has worked on the project. “They both have other jobs, they’re both moms, they both have families,” she said. “They just had this idea and went with it, and we’re really proud of them.” During her usual patrol of the market last week, Ms. Hollis overheard one attendee say the Haraneco Café was the best lunch spot in town. 

Ms. Hara estimates they sold to roughly 50 customers their first day, a number that has stayed consistent over the stall’s eight weeks at the market. They go through 48 cups of cooked rice each weekend, between their five different kinds of rice balls and different side dishes. While the onigiri fillings and sides rotate each week, some staples remain. 

Umeboshi, or sour plum—one of the rice ball’s most common fillings—are a constant, and the pair pickles the plums themselves. Umeboshi has a mischievous wildness that some find a little strong, but the sweet-and-tart flavor is both startling and delicate. They also sell mochi, a Japanese rice cake, and a plum soda made of sparkling water and house-made plum syrup. 

Ms. Hara and Ms. Kaneko don’t use recipes for the rice balls. “We just know it,” Ms. Kaneko explained. Everything about the onigiri—the taste, the shape, the flavor—is ingrained in their memories from childhood. 

Once the farmer’s market ends in November, Ms. Hara and Ms. Kaneko will explore ways to continue their venture. They are talking with Miguel Kuntz, of CC Café, about doing something during the winter months, such as a pop-up serving traditional Japanese breakfast. 

Ms. Hara and Ms. Kaneko have collaborated with Mr. Kuntz before, making sweet and savory Japanese snacks for his coffee pop-up. He recalled in particular one of Ms. Kaneko’s mochi parfaits, with sweet bean paste and matcha cream. 

“They always take real care in the presentation and the ease of edibility of the food, whatever they’re making,” Mr. Kuntz said. “Even though it was made in a home kitchen at that point, the presentation was great, the flavors well developed.”  

Ms. Hara laughed last week as she mused on the importance of food in her life. “In Japanese culture, everybody’s thinking about food all the time,” she said. “My family, every time we finish breakfast it’s like, ‘Oh, what should we have for dinner?’”