Perhaps brought on by the onslaught of takeout during the pandemic, the bento boom has captivated the local dining scene.
But not all bento boxes—Japanese-style lunch boxes—are created equal. The traditional wooden or lacquered containers typically include rice, protein, veggies, and dessert, compartmentalized in a magnificently orderly way that is almost too pretty to eat.
In Pasadena, family-owned Osawa by former Chaya executive chef Shigefumi Tachibe, makes a Shokado Bento loaded with sashimi, sushi, ribeye steak, and miso-marinated salmon, along with sunomono (cucumber), rice, and miso soup. Or the petit (by comparison) Saba Bento with mackerel and burdock tempura, which resembles the gourmet TV dinner of your dreams.
Former Q sushi chef Ai Kennedy is now serving weekend bento boxes with her special boiled firefly squid and a mix of seasonal Japanese ingredients with California produce out of a small gallery on South Wilson Avenue.
Sushi master Morihiro Onodera opened Morihiro in Atwater Village with a daily lunch box bounty consisting of what he finds at the farmers market, along with traditional homemade pickles, tofu, and omelet. You can also expect the nine squares to be filled with mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) and sunchoke that accompanies grilled mackerel, big-eye tuna sashimi from Hawaii, and halibut from Japan, ending with sweet mountain peach agar. The chef wanted to share his farm-to-table cooking while using all wild and sustainable fish, along with his knowledge and reputation as a rice master. “He has grown it and sold it,” says manager Tokiko Binkley. “He sleeps thinking about rice.”
Sunset Sushi in Silver Lake (in the same family of restaurants as Ichijiku in Highland Park) specializes in kaisen chirashi, with generous pieces of raw fish atop a bed of rice, and omakase boxes filled with premium sushi and sashimi by Tokyo-born chefs Kazuhiro Yamada and Yoshi Matsumoto.
Acclaimed chef Nozawa has recently created Toro Tataki Bento at all Los Angeles locations of KazuNori and Sugarfish. This small, brick-shaped box features a decadent dish of finely chopped toro from sustainably ranched bluefin tuna, served over rice with ginger, nori strips, and wakame (kelp), and topped with salmon eggs and cucumber.
Two Michelin–star chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka and her sous chef/partner Carole Iida-Nakayama have opened bento box eatery n/soto (meaning outside) in West Adams. The focus is on exploring Japanese food through outside influences with rotating themes every 4–6 weeks until their izakaya can open this summer.
Michelin-star Hayato at Row DTLA and chef Brandon Go have set a high bar with a box that’s an immaculately constructed work of art. “I think the main thing that is different about our bento is not what ingredients are in it, but how it’s made,” he says. “Our entire team works for three days with a focus of putting each component into the box exactly when you arrive for pickup. Most bento are made with things that are stored in the refrigerator or put in the box for an extended period of time before the box is sold.”
Chef Go is modest about being a frontrunner for the city’s newfound bento craze, “The pandemic created a perfect storm for people to search for special food that they can take home. The bento box is the perfect food medium for celebrating life without a restaurant,” says Go. “When I think about going to Japan, one of my first thoughts is ordering a nice bento and opening it on the Shinkansen on my way from Tokyo to Kyoto. No matter how many times I do it, there is something about opening the lid of a bento box that makes you forget about the outside world, if only for a few seconds.”