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Think inside the box: Your springtime picnics may never be the same

Bento boxes at Cream Pan, which has locations in Tustin and Fountain Valley.
(Edwin Goei)

Right now all over Japan, the sakura (cherry blossom) trees are blooming, signaling spring’s arrival. This is the time for “hanami,” the tradition of taking a trip to view the trees and picnic under their cotton candy-colored branches with a good bento. Throughout Japanese history, bentos — lunch boxes packed with a variety of foods — have been inextricably linked to venturing outdoors, but especially for hanami.

There are 19th-century woodblock prints from the Edo period depicting bucolic scenes of families eating bentos beneath sakura trees. Bentos are still strongly associated with picnicking to this day, but they’ve also permeated daily life. In Japan, bentos are enjoyed by all people all the time. Kids eat them at school. Salarymen scarf them down at the office. There exists countless YouTube channels and Instagram feeds dedicated to the art of filling bento boxes not just with different dishes but elaborate designs that verge on the meticulous.

But the raison d’etre of a bento box has been and always will be portability — a well-balanced meal packed in a ready-to-travel container. At Japan’s convenience stores and food halls, bentos are so popular it is estimated that their sale accounts for over $50 billion a year.

So, what is a bento? It’s anything and everything. And though there are no rulebooks that govern what a bento box must contain, the foods within it should ideally exhibit the five colors of red, green, yellow, black and white. In almost a literal way, an empty bento box is akin to a blank canvas. A good bento box takes into account compositional balance in both appearance and taste.

What follows is a compilation of the best bentos you can find in the county. Designed to be eaten anywhere but a stuffy restaurant, a bento box is arguably the ultimate takeout food during these pandemic times, especially if you can find a cherry blossom tree to eat it under.

The grilled saba bento box at Tokyo Central with locations in Yorba Linda and Costa Mesa.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST SUPERMARKET BENTOS

Tokyo Central
2975 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. (714) 751-8433
18171 Imperial Highway, Yorba Linda, CA 92886. (714) 386-5110

All of Orange County’s Japanese supermarkets offer bentos. Seiwa puts out a good selection on weekdays and Mitsuwa always has a dependable array at the back of the store. But the one that beats them all is Tokyo Central.

At its Costa Mesa location, the massive bento inventory is the first thing you encounter as you enter the store. The variety is dizzying and the crowd that descends upon it ravenous. First to be snapped up is usually any bento with karaage — morsels of Japanese fried chicken. Next will be the makunouchi salmon, which is so named because bentos like this were historically served during theater intermissions in Japan. The term “makunouchi” translates to “between-acts.” These days when a bento is referred to as “makunouchi,” it suggests that it will contain the most variety of dishes.

For its version, Tokyo Central’s chefs marinate salmon steaks in soy sauce and sake before gently cooking and laying them atop rice. Surrounding the fish are satellites of simmered vegetables, steamed Japanese sweet potato, assorted fish cakes, Japanese pickles and the lusciously sweet Japanese rolled omelet called tamagoyaki. It’s a veritable feast of different tastes and textures. And at $7.49, the meal is cheaper than most tuna subs.

But if it’s a bargain you’re after, the store marks down all remaining bentos and sushi boxes with a 20% discount after 7 p.m. By then there won’t be much to choose from, but if you’re lucky, you might see the grilled saba box — possibly the most underrated and underappreciated bento at Tokyo Central. Those who aren’t put off that the fish still wears its mottled skin will be rewarded with a flaky flesh that has a slight tang. Of course, it goes extremely well with rice.

The salmon bento box at Makino in Irvine.
The salmon bento box at Makino in Irvine.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST BENTOS FROM A BUFFET

Makino
1818 Main St. Irvine, CA 92614. (949) 744-5461

Like other buffets, Makino’s operating model was blown to bits during the lockdown. But rather than shuttering, this Japanese seafood and sushi buffet refocused its efforts on upgrading its bentos for takeout, which was already something you could order pre-COVID-19.

The changes began modestly, but as the months dragged on, the improvements got better and better. The miso soup and gyoza remain. But they jettisoned the green salad that used to take up a large part of the bento box real estate, replacing it with a creamy mac salad, two kinds of pickles, simmered gobo, fish cakes, and kabocha squash that’s as sweet as Thanksgiving yam.

Still, the biggest change is something only regulars would notice: The rice now comes in its own separate container instead of occupying space in the bento box itself.

Some of the proteins, like the teriyaki salmon, got bigger and tastier. The filet is now thicker and grilled so perfectly — with the flesh moist and the skin slightly crispy — that you never need to apply any of the sauce that comes on the side.

The dosirak, a Korean equivalent of the bento box, at Heartful Made.
The dosirak, a Korean equivalent of the bento box, at Heartful Made.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST KOREAN BENTOS

Heartful Made
2009 W. Commonwealth Ave. Unit C, Fullerton, CA 92833. (714) 732-3084.

Technically, what Heartful Made sells aren’t bentos; they’re called dosirak, the Korean analog. But a dosirak is to a bento as an elevator is to a lift. Both are partitioned boxes of food designed for takeout and picnics.

But since there is a big difference between Japanese and Korean cuisine, what you get in those compartments will be spicier and more perfumed with sesame seed oil than a typical Japanese bento. The bulgogi here is at least twice as sweet as its closest Japanese cousin, gyudon. And the stir-fried squid is shellacked with a red pepper spice blend that triggers your sweat glands just by looking at it.

Heartful Made in Fullerton offers Korean dosirak.
(Edwin Goei)

Perhaps the best bento is the spicy pork, where thinly sliced meat is stir-fried and coated in a crimson sauce so radioactive that it requires the entire tray of rice to counteract its hotness.

But as with all proper Korean meals, there are banchan — traditional Korean side dishes that seem predestined to being stuffed inside a bento. Kimchi is, of course, in attendance, but if you’re lucky, there will also be the delectable savory Korean pancakes called panjeon, spicy fish cakes stir-fried with onion, an herb-studded rolled omelet and an obscure side dish of soy-braised Spanish peanuts called ddangkong jorim that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else.

It should be noted that even before the pandemic, Heartful Made sold its dosirak like it does now: strictly as takeout. The store was never meant for dine-in. What has changed since then is that the kitchen is now busier than ever fulfilling orders for all the online delivery apps. As such, you need to call ahead if you have a particular dosirak in mind.

Tenkatori in Costa Mesa makes a karaage bento well worth a try.
Tenkatori in Costa Mesa makes a karaage bento well worth a try.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST JAPANESE FRIED CHICKEN BENTOS

Tenkatori
3001 Bristol St. Ste D Costa Mesa, CA 92626. (714) 641-7004

Karaage is arguably the most coveted item to have in a bento box. And Tenkatori, the county’s preeminent Japanese fried chicken specialist, happens to produce one of the best karaages outside Japan. So naturally, you want the karaage bentos here, even if the Styrofoam containers make them look more like a typical combo meal from a run-of-the-mill teriyaki joint.

The Costa Mesa store is part of a company that began in Oita, Japan in the ‘60s. And as simple as the recipe for karaage is — just chicken thigh marinated in sake, ginger juice and soy sauce — the dish’s success lives and dies by how it’s fried.

There’s the first fry, at low temperature, which cooks the meat. Then the second fry, at a high temperature, creates the crispy outer crust. Tenkatori’s fry cooks always seem to hit that elusive sweet spot of crunchy-on-the-outside and juicy-on-the-inside — a state that lies tenuously between salmonella and burlap.

The Tenkatori BBQ bento box.
The BBQ bento box at Tenkatori in Costa Mesa.
(Edwin Goei)

So ignore the teriyaki chicken. Shun the stir-fried strips of beef called “BBQ.” Always get the karaage for your bento.

Included in the meal is rice, miso soup and a choice of either two more karaage, two mashed-potato croquettes or a serving of tempura. To offset all that fried food, there are California rolls and your choice of either a brisk salad or a selection of colorful steamed vegetables that make the whole thing pop in your Instagram feed. Choose the latter, if only to prove that sometimes great bentos come in Styrofoam.

A bento box with an assortment of Japanese comfort foods at Neighborhood Bento.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST BENTO SPECIALIST

Neighborhood Bento
10488 Valley View St. Ste 5 Buena Park, CA 90620. (714) 333-6453

Neighborhood Bento in Buena Park.
(Edwin Goei)

As its name suggests, Neighborhood Bento is a restaurant that specializes in bentos. What that really means is that it revels in Japanese comfort foods, most of which happens to fit perfectly within the confines of a bento box.

Here you’ll find bentos filled with crisp karaage, grilled salmon, succulent shrimp and fried fish cake. And if you opt for the “assorted” bento, you get all the above, along with all the sides they make. This includes two kinds of pickles, a simmered dish with various ingredients that could count as a main course itself, hijiki seaweed, gobo, tamagoyaki and Japanese potato salad, which is always the best kind of potato salad.

Other popular bento choices include katsu chicken, ginger pork, hamburger steak and yakiniku. There’s something for everyone, even a fried tofu bento for vegetarians. About the only thing you can’t get is ramen, which, as you might have guessed, is antithetical to the idea of bento and portability in general.

Cream Pan offers a bento box with nori-covered rice balls and pieces of karaage.
Cream Pan in Tustin and Fountain Valley offers a bento box with nori-covered rice balls and pieces of karaage.
(Edwin Goei)

BEST BENTOS FROM A BAKERY

Cream Pan
602 El Camino Real Tustin, CA 92780. (714) 665-8239
15945 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley, CA 92708. (714) 760-4854

Most people who are aware that Cream Pan exists know that the bakery is famous for their strawberry croissants. The custard and strawberry-filled pastries have always been Cream Pan’s gateway drug — introduced to the unacquainted when a tray of it inevitably shows up at a potluck or party.

But regulars know that Cream Pan is more than its croissants. They know that everything else Cream Pan makes is just as habit-forming. This includes the items in the refrigerated display case next to the door which features Japanese-style sandwiches and a bento box that contains two nori-covered rice balls paired with a few pieces of karaage.

This basic bento is a nod to history. It was rice balls like these, called onigiri, that were the first portable food of Japan — the thing from which bentos eventually evolved. Inside each of these hand-holdable rice sandwiches is a hidden pocket of filling. One has seasoned kelp; the other has an umeboshi plum. Eat them in concert with the karaage and you’ll momentarily forget that McNuggets and fries exist.

Edwin Goei is a contributor to TimesOC.

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