It's Thursday. I'm standing near the boxed sushi section at the Mitsuwa Marketplace. I look at my watch. It's about a quarter after five. He should be coming out of that door any second now — the man with the red Sharpie.
There are others like me waiting for him, milling around, trying to not look like obvious cheapskates. But as we attempt to blend in, we are still coiled like sprinters waiting for the gun.
Finally, the door swings open, and the man with the red Sharpie strolls out casually, oblivious that his entrance has been anticipated for the past ten minutes.
He removes the cap to his marker, hunches down to the remaining supply of boxed lunches and slashes away. He marks every container, one by one. He subtracts a whole dollar there. Fifty cents here.
What was $4.99 a few minutes ago is now $3.99. In most cases, his discounts amount to about a 20% reduction. His job is done to spur movement of the inventory. He is the Ben Bernanke of bento boxes.
I spring to action as he finishes one section and moves on to the next. Usually, there isn't too many to choose from. It's like a Soviet-era selection of barren shelves compared to the bounty seen at lunch. But today, I'm lucky. There's enough food left over. Chicken karaage with rice and trimmings. Panko-crusted fish. Even a boxed unagi rice and bulgogi. Plenty for my fellow cheapskates and I to share.
Before I leave the store at a quarter to six with my three boxes of karaage, the refrigerated shelves will be cleaned out, ready for the next morning's batch of bentos. The man with the red Sharpie would have done his job.
Dinner for me will be deep-fried morsels of fried chicken, which like its American counterpart, tastes great cold. As such, I don't bother heating it up. But unlike KFC, this is a healthy meal. Things like green beans, marinated bamboo shoots, stewed carrot, mushroom and seaweed balances the protein. Rice comprises half the bulk.
In these recessionary times, it's nice to know there are ways to shave off a few bucks, short of cooking, TV dinners or the drive-thru. Just wait for the man with the red Sharpie.
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.