If you thought that new Chick-Fil-A will be giving your lunch hour routine a 180, prepare to take a trip to Chinatown where, hidden in an upstairs art gallery, is a secret midday haunt pretty much nobody knows about. It’s only open by advanced reservation two, sometimes three days a week. You can’t stay and eat, there’s only one item on the menu, and you need to order it 24 hours in advance. Oh, and on top of all of that — it’s vegan.
All of this work for one rice bowl seems insane, but as quirky as it sounds, it’s completely worth it.
Chi-So NYC is a bento rice jar project started by artist/DJ Kiki Kudo, an unexpected chef who pulls inspiration from Japanese tradition and outside cultures to make these colorful portable meals. (The name means "earth layers" in Japanese.) That’s also where any normality ends, because everything about Chi-So delightfully makes no sense, which is how it’s become the coolest, weirdest lunch option downtown.
Mind-bogglingly well-produced for being in its infancy, Chi-So’s adorable promotional clip seems to have a production value just short of an Ariana Grande music video. It legitimately feels like taking a tiny brain vacation to Tokyo, and if you don’t know how these vegetable layers mimic those of the planet we call home, the dancing charts will surely explain it.
Then there’s the process of actually going to get it. Picking up one of these rice jars is the closest I’ve come to living out a Girls episode, even despite having lived in Bushwick so long ago that I was too poor to afford Roberta’s. Once you reach the door, off of a bustling corner of Grand Street, you buzz the second-floor Gallery Sensai, a combination art gallery, radio station and, as a guy working in the main room by the fridge tells me, makeshift bar. That’s how it works: ask for Shannon, tell them your name, hand over eight bucks cash (exact change preferred), and leave bewildered.
It’s vegan, but good, packed with enough flavor to kibosh the thought in your head about how great this would be with cold, sauce-drenched beef. The top layer, a sunflower seed-specked pineapple-and-cilantro mix, is a refreshing complement to the second layer of caramelized curried onions and zucchini. The rice layer is, of course, perfect, and ideally placed for being pierced right as the spiciness sets in. Next comes thinly sliced carrots and ginger slices, followed by red pepper with sesame seeds and the bottom layer of nori rice. Most of the time I spent eating it at the airport — it is the ideal travel food, after all — was also spent yelling at my husband about how good it was, and thinking if I maybe loved Chi-So more than him.
(A note on traveling: it’s not liquidy, but I still got stopped at airport security. When the TSA agent took the jar out of my suitcase, he seemed more intrigued about the savory layer cake than about our nation’s safety, so proceed with potential caution and likely curiosity.)
It’s nearly indestructible, and ideal for throwing in a bag when you’re on-the-go and could care less about making sure soup won’t spill on you in the office elevator. Even if it gets smushed, eating a Chi-So is like excavating a SuperBowl taco dip: you’re never going to able to mix all the layers up, so just do the best you can. The mixture changes a bit day-to-day — last week, there was tarragon and ginger juice among the listed ingredients — but it’s substantial regardless, a meal for even the hungriest of health nuts. If Organic Avenue made a rice bowl this size, they’d charge $15; here, it’s exchanged for a small monetary donation.
You do, of course, have to be forward-thinking enough to reserve one in advance. It’s like the far end at a Starbucks counter; you only get to pick one up if you’ve already given your name. Simply e-mail Kiko the night before to stop by the next day "around 1 p.m." to grab one of the rice jars from the Know-Wave fridge. Yes, it’s weird, but isn’t spending 40 minutes in a line at Sweetgreen borderline psychotic, too?
The veggies are fresh, organic and delicious, but the best topping will be your officemates’ confused looks when they think you’ve found a fantastic bodega and haven’t let them in on the secret. Good thing Chi-So can be made for large groups, meetings and birthday parties — meaning you can convince your boss to order a round on him.
Healthy, quirky and totally Instagrammable? Looks like tomorrow’s lunch decision has already been made.