The tradition of integrating sea urchin into meals dates back to the Middle Ages, when people living along Italy’s hardscrabble coastal region of Apulia, near the heel of the country’s so-called boot, ate whatever they could find, including these menacing spiked balls. The Italians called these creatures ricci di mare or sea hedgehogs. We know the unctuous echinoderms as uni.
Fortunately, the people of Apulia ultimately figured out a way to make sea urchin an irresistible spaghetti plate, working the urchin’s delicate golden-orange gonads into the pasta like oceanic butter. Uni is also extraordinarily popular in Japanese cuisine, where it is wrapped in nori seaweed to resemble mini battleships or served as shooters.
Very recently, chef James Ta of Fickle, an elevated California-casual concept in Little Tokyo, took the uni pasta idea and gave it a Southeast Asian makeover, creating a Vietnamese noodle dish that he calls Santa Barbara Uni Bún. Chef Ta subs the standard grilled pork or shrimp found in bún, a popular rice vermicelli dish, and replaces it with sweet briny uni sourced from Santa Barbara waters. The cold bowl of noodles mingles with bean sprouts for crunchy texture, while the creamy uni tranches sit atop the mound of bún, surrounded by a traditional fresh-flavor trio of mint leaves, cilantro, and cucumber strips. A sweet, house-made nuoc mam dipping sauce contributes signature umami-sweetness to this updated Vietnamese rice noodle favorite. The taste is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, the flavors of the sea are lifted by the bright herbs and sauce, and although this may sound like a dish for the bold diner, it is accessible enough for most eaters to appreciate.
The restaurant space is a sandwich shop by day (The Sandwich Smith), but from 5:30 p.m. on it becomes Fickle, and this is the only place you’ll taste a classic bowl of Vietnamese noodles so deeply rooted in rustic Italian cuisine. The menu changes seasonally, so slurp up your bowl of sea urchin before spring ends.
Fickle, 7362 East 1st Street, Little Tokyo, 213-628-1888 or ficklela.com