New pop-up Oni Onigiri is drawing crowds with its Japanese rice balls and street food

In February at the popular Asian Night Market, longtime friends and former Chow Yum line cooks Shawn Cao and Riley Dunaway introduced a new Japanese street food venture specializing in onigiri. Serving handheld rice balls stuffed with different ingredients, Oni Onigiri sold out at the well-attended downtown festival, timed this year with the Lunar New Year.

Since then, Oni Onigiri has been making the rounds with pop-ups at local bars and breweries like Chelsea’s Live, the Radio Bar, Tin Roof Brewing Co. and Cypress Cove Brewing Co. Reception has been strong, say Cao and Dunaway. The business partners have also been popping up in New Orleans, and have plans to expand into Lafayette and Hammond.

Shawn Cao and Riley Dunaway, founders of Oni Onigiri
Caramelized Beef Onigiri and Snowkrab Onigiri

“It kind of started on a whim,” says Cao, who grew up cooking burgers, fried turkey wings and other gas station fare in his family’s Port Allen convenience store. “I guess you could call it a happy accident.”

The two Baton Rougeans first met via online gaming back in middle school. After graduating from Baton Rouge Magnet High, they got jobs working in the Chow Yum kitchen around 2018. In 2020, they left the restaurant, taking jobs in the construction industry. But by early this year, they say they were both itching to get back into hospitality.

Cao reached out to one of Chow Yum’s original co-founders Vu “Phat” Le for advice. Le was involved in organizing the Asian Night Market and suggested the two sign up for a vendor booth. The Night Market was to be expanded and relocated to Rhorer Plaza, following a wildly popular inaugural event held in May 2023 at the Electric Depot.

The onigiri are easy to eat on the go

“Riley and I came up with a plan to do onigiri because we realized there wasn’t really a market for it here in Baton Rouge yet,” Cao says. “We just pulled the trigger, thinking it would be a great snack for people to have in their hands to just walk around. It was something that was easy to eat.”

It was also the kind of eye-catching dish that would make people stop and notice. And it could be assembled beforehand, making face-to-face sales easier. Their gamble paid off with the booth selling out of all 750 rice balls the partners had prepared for the event.

Next up came pop-ups around Baton Rouge, as well as in New Orleans at Miel Brewery and Taproom. Next month, Oni will hit Oak Street Brewery in the Crescent City, too.

Caramelized Beef Onigiri


Cao says the rice balls are made by forming a mound of cooked short-grain sushi rice and creating a pocket within to insert fillings. More rice is mounded on the top, and the “ball” is gently maneuvered into its traditional triangular shape. Some are wrapped in nori, while others are grilled lightly. Each is topped with a house-made yuzu-ginger-eel sauce, Dunaway says.

Currently, Oni makes four signature flavors of onigiri, traditional tuna mayo, which is made with cooked bluefin tuna and homemade Japanese mayo, and a vegan option featuring kimchi and furikake (a savory Japanese dried seasoning blend). Other flavors include caramelized beef and snow krab.

The business partners are also making a novel dish they call the Snow Dog, an all-beef frank topped with snow krab salad and Kewpie mayo, and further gilded with eel sauce, furikake, fried shallots and green onions.

While rice balls are their signature dish, Cao and Dunaway say they aren’t pigeon-holed by them. The menu has also featured tofu miso soup and inari, tofu skin with seasoned rice topped with salmon, and snow krab salad.  Oni is also working with Em’s Bakery, a Japanese cottage baker in Baton Rouge that supplies a number of Asian restaurants, on future collaborative pop-ups.

Find Oni Onigiri at the Radio Bar on June 7, Cypress Coast Brewery on June 8, and Chelsea’s Live on June 12 and 13. Follow them on Instagram for additional future dates and details.