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By Edwin Goei
Prepackaged meals are always a dicey proposition—unless you're headed to Bentoss. This Japan-based chain offers nothing but bento boxes, the streamlined feasts the Japanese perfected centuries before the Western world discovered the Hungry Man Dinner. The company recently opened its second-ever American location in Costa Mesa's Little Tokyo Corner about a month ago, and already eaters scamper in and out laden with bento boxes.
The tiny restaurant is technically not a sit-down place; only three two-person tables are available. A sign advises customers to order a meal by the assigned number—no doubt to make it easier on the cute Japanese counter girl whose command of English is lacking, but it also makes the lines go faster. Whether you eat in your car or on the floor, there's not much mystery to ordering. All the options are explained in English and Japanese; if you're illiterate, life-sized replicas of each option shine in all their shellacked glory from a display case.
Bentoss sells 22 types of boxes; all include rice (usually white, but sometimes combined with wild vegetables), a buttery potato salad, a couple of vegetables and pickled-ginger slivers. The variety comes from the main courses. One hosts Korean barbecue, which glistens with teriyaki and contains delightful strips of fat. The curry offered in a couple of bentos could be a tad spicier, but is nevertheless excellent considering its mass-produced origins; you can dunk pork katsu, fried shrimp or sliced hamburger patties (here shortened as "hamburg") into a container filled with the sweet brown goo. Regardless of selection, all will fill you in a way sushi never can—this is working-class Japanese grub for people on the go.
Some bentos are more complicated than others, and this is where Bentoss' only mystery arises. The beginner bentos are ridiculously low-priced—a fried whitefish fillet nestled alongside seaweed and the regular condiments only puts you back $5; pay a quarter more, and you can add a couple of chunks of greasy-good fried chicken. But the prices begin escalating rapidly after those bargains. Seriously, why would anyone pay $15 for the Bentoss Special Bento—beef, pork, shrimp, salmon and a cube of hard-boiled egg—when the Wafu Makunouchi offers the same platter, sans only the pork, for 6 bucks cheaper? Don't get me wrong—gobble at will at Bentoss (the more expensive boxes are still bueno), but always gobble thriftily.
BENTOSS, 675 PAULARINO AVE., STE. 3, COSTA MESA, (714) 444-3418.