Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bentoss: Comfort in a box

I was reminiscing recently with my friend Brooke, a hakujin who lived in Japan for a couple of years, about the great bento box lunches that you can buy and enjoy on the high-speed Shinkansen trains in Japan.

That got me craving that efficiently packed, comfort food in a box, which is more typically made by moms for their elementary-school kids to take to school.

So I decided to try a takeout bento place I'd spotted in Costa Mesa, a couple of doors down from Ango-tei, near Mitsuwa Marketplace (natch!).
The clever name, Bentoss, caught my eye, but I was skeptical about how good the food would be.

Positive J signs as I walked into the small, bright shop: samples of the many bento options in an enclosed glass case; notices and posters in Japanese; a perky female clerk who spoke English with a marked Japanese accent (trouble with the Rs).
Another very J touch: advisory notes (written in English) posted throughout the bento display case, recommending that the food be consumed within 2 hours of purchase.

There are a couple dozen types of bento boxes to choose from, ranging in style from the traditional makunouchi of broiled fish, rice, pickled and stewed vegetables, to more "Western-style" bentos with a hamburger patty served on fried rice, or pork katsu with curry.
Prices range from $5 for a simple chicken bento (more like a better version of a food-court chicken bowl), to $15 for the Bentoss Special Makunouchi, offering rice, beef, pork, fried shrimp, broiled salmon, egg omelette and stewed veggies.

I ordered a classic Japanese bento: the Wafu Makunouchi, $8.95 - a pared-down version of the Bentoss Special.
Here's what I got ...

First, the packaging: very colorful, very Japanese, complete with slightly awkward English greeting on top:
"A handmade and fresh meal. Healthy and Safety. Have a lunch today with Bentoss."

I peeled off the Bentoss sticker securing the cardboard box flap and inside found the food and some thoughtful engineering: chopsticks, napkin and soy sauce packet tucked in a protective plastic pocket on the lid:

As for the food...
Starting at the left side of the box: The requisite rice was topped with a big, puckery-sour (yay!) umeboshi pickled plum and a nicely broiled piece of salmon, seasoned simply, as it should be, with a bit of salt. I definitely enjoyed this part of the bento the most.

In the center of the box, clockwise from upper left: niku-jaga (potato, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and potato noodles stewed with small pieces of beef); potato salad with cherry tomato; kinpira gobo (slivers of root vegetables cooked with soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds); pickled cucumber; a piece of tempura shrimp and a piece of tempura kabocha pumpkin; one kara-age chicken nugget (the J version of fried chicken, with the bird marinated in soy sauce before frying); one piece of tamago (slightly sweet omelette).

I gobbled the tempura pieces down. Even without a dipping sauce, they were both tasty, and yes, best eaten immediately so they don't get soggy.

The kara-age chicken is also a traditional favorite for everyone; how can you not enjoy flavorful fried chicken?

The egg was fluffy and slightly, not strongly, sweet - perfect.

A good niku-jaga is such a Japanese home-cooking classic; this one was pretty good, though the flavors were on the thin side.

I love Japanese potato salad so much more than the runny, bad-tasting American deli salads; the J version is lighter, drier in consistency and refreshing, studded with cucumber slices.

I'm also typically a pickled cucumber fanatic, but the Bentoss version was just OK - crunchy and tart enough, but there was a slight chemical aftertaste.

A chemical aftertaste was just one reason I was completely disappointed with the kinpira gobo, usually my favorite homestyle dish. The dish clearly hadn't been cooked long enough with the right ingredients; it was strangely bland, finishing with the weird aftertaste.
The worst kinpira gobo I've ever had (at left below, with the pickled cucumber at right); I couldn't even finish it:
I also bought one onigiri rice ball (one with flavored seaweed tucked inside) to snack on later:
It's wrapped in that ingenious onigiri packaging that you see at all the fast-food places in Japan that sell onigiri (food stands and the ubiquitous "konbini" convenience stores): the outer seaweed is covered in plastic and then wrapped around the rice ball, to keep the nori separate from the rice and prevent a sticky mass while in transit.

When you're ready to eat it, you unwrap the outer plastic, remove the seaweed and wrap it around the rice ball, like so:
Mmmmmmm ... such a satisfying comfort snack, one that always takes me back to my early days of elementary school, when I wasn't self-conscious yet about being the only kid at lunch with a strange rice ball to eat, amid a sea of peanut butter-jelly and bologna sandwiches.

675 Paularino Ave. #3
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
1620 W. Redondo Beach Blvd.
(Inside Marukai Pacific Market)
Gardena, CA 90247


  1. As usual, an incredibly detailed and riveting review from Ms. Rawfishionado :)

    I picked up a bento box from Bentoss once on my way to the airport. I drove to Bentoss and got the box, went home and packed, got into the cab, checked in at John Wayne etc., and finally sat down to eat while waiting to board the plane. Not only was the food still delicious, the box sat perfectly on my lap while I was eating, and did not leak while I was carrying it around. I recommend bentos for commuting! (Which is of course what many people actually do in Japan, but which isn't done much in Southern California.)

  2. I'm loving the posts. They are getting more and more engrossing for me. I love the step by step tips to making some of the dishes. I look forward to our sushi date tonight!

  3. Funny that you said the kinpira gobo was not good. I looked at the pictures of the bento box before reading the post and thought to myself, "the kinpira gobo looks fucked". I bet it came out of a plastic, vacuum-packed, bag.