3 Great Bento Boxes in Los Angeles
Takamaru Gozen Bento
Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 3), we'll be bringing you periodic lists of some of the best things we've found to eat and drink around town. Ice cream sandwiches and bowls of tsukemen, fish tacos and dan dan mien, cups of boba and glasses of booze. Read on.
There's something wholly comforting about a proper bento box, loaded with carefully organized selections: sides such as kyuri asazuke, or pickled cucumbers, to perhaps a cut of saba lightly salted then broiled. The very sight of a bento, generally in a laquered box, can elicit a rather primal thrill.
Not all Japanese restaurants in town will have bentos on their menu, but when they do, it's usually for lunch and as such priced rather reasonably. It's standard to get your bento with miso soup, salad and rice. Some kind of tempura, whether shrimp, vegetable medley, or both, may appear alongside as well. It's not always indicated on the menu, but you'll likely find bentos in the style of makanouchi, which comes with both fish and meat, vegetables, pickled plums known as umeboshi, rice and eggs, often pan-fried and rolled.
We scoped out three spots in town where bentos are best enjoyed on site. Turn the page.
Izakaya Fu-ga capitalizes on its location underground, all dim lighting and chocolate tones. It's enough of a retreat, away from the daytime Downtown bustle, that you'll be unsurprised to see the dining room nearly full at lunch, occupied by professionals working nearby. The Fu-ga bento comes with requisite miso soup, salad and rice, along with a small sashimi selection of tuna, salmon and albacore. You'll have seven options to choose for your main, including char-broiled rib-eye steak and bacon-wrapped scallops; and three choices, shrimp and vegetable tempura, a California roll or a spicy tuna roll, for a side. 111 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles; (213) 625-1722
Restaurant Aoi may be to the right of Marugame Monzo, but the family-run restaurant is as diametrically opposite in look and approach as it can get. While Monzo is sleek, from its decor to the fresh hand-pulled udon noodles, Restaurant Aoi is cozy, somewhat worn, with an array of familiar homestyle dishes. The restaurant is a consummate lunch spot, offering a dizzying range of choices, from donburi to house plate lunches to combination sets. The makonouchi bento, regular or special, best encapsulates why the restaurant maintains a steady base of regulars. Each regular set comes with shrimp and vegetable tempura, miso soup, pickled cucumbers, kinpira gobo, or burdock roots, fresh sashimi, and a highly habit-forming eggplant in sesame-miso sauce. The special also comes with broiled salmon and teriyaki beef. And you have a choice of white or brown rice with both. 331 E. 1st St., Los Angeles; (213) 624-8260
Takamaru is a fast-casual restaurant on the corner of a compact strip mall on 3rd St., adjacent to plenty of retail distractions. Your order will come out quickly, impressively so for set lunches as varied as they are substantial. Bentos come in four options, including salmon, vegetarian and chicken; five if there's a special of the day. A behemoth in size and sheer range of options, the Gozen Bento defies the norm by which most bentos are defined. There's so many elements that the effort to keep everything in one box, as per tradition, is not even attempted. It comes instead with a main box, divided into four sections, and several satellite dishes. A manageable assortment of tempura, shrimp and vegetable, is paired with tofu salad, a California roll, and a salad of julienned burdock roots. Your chosen main protein, whether black cod, salmon, chicken or rib-eye, will arrive in an oblong dish garnished with salad and steamed vegetables. And lest you think that a meal is incomplete without dessert, there's a choice of pudding or ice cream too. 8474 W 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 782-0181
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.