The term "bento" gets tossed around on many Japanese menus in Los Angeles, where it often refers to those oversized cafeteria platters filled with sauce-slicked bits of chicken teriyaki, udon noodle bowls and stacks of tempura fortified with a California roll or two -- call it the "super combo meal" of Japanese dining.
There is, however, a different side to the world of bento: the stripped-down, utilitarian to-go boxes called hokaben, a conceptual equivalent of those sandwich/apple/cookie grab bags given out at cheap company picnics. In Japan, hokaben are common fixtures at railway stations, convenience stores and takeout shops: portable plastic containers filled with a few small bites of katsu, tamgoyaki or broiled unagi, served with a side of steamed rice and pickles. It's the ideal inexpensive meal for the working man or woman on a tight schedule.
You can find old-school, freshly made hokaben bento at a handful of shops in Los Angeles, most of which prepare a set number of boxes just before lunch and sell them until they're gone. Most range anywhere between $5-$10, which makes them a satisfying yet spendthrift choice on those days that brown-bagging it just won't suffice. Here are three of our favorites:
Slightly south of Koreatown proper is this lime green bamboo-covered shack opened in (and not decorated since) the mid-'80s. The specialty is a style of rather hefty bento, one that might appear familiar to fans of Hawaiian plate lunches. Trays are filled with a mish-mash of things like crispy chicken dabbed with tonkatsu sauce, egg rolls, teriyaki salmon and a rather mayonnaise-friendly version of macaroni salad. The rectangles of sweet egg omelet and the salted enoki mushrooms are both first-rate. There's even a bowl of housemade beni shoga, red pickled ginger, available next to the register. Help yourself; when tasked with cutting through their viscous potato-studded curry, its sweet sting goes a long way. Bento: $7.25-$9.25; 1500 Western Ave., L.A.; (323) 733-5316.
Every morning owner Nobuo Anzai and his wife, Mihoko, divvy out portions of Japanese comfort food: chicken hamburger moistened with brown gravy (their most popular item), crisp panko-coated fried fish and shrimp tempura. The best part might be the kaleidoscope of Japanese pickled vegetables: sour-salty umeboshi plums, lotus root marinated in soy sauce, and crunchy ponzu-spiked radish. The Anzais has been serving these bento, at a rate of almost 100 a day, for more than 20 years. Bento: $5.75; 1816 Sawtelle Blvd., L.A.; (310) 479-5989.
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For better or worse, this might be the most traditional of L.A.'s bento stands. The two elderly women behind the counter might not be known for their friendly glances, but that's probably because they're too busy assembling intricate bento filled with a daily menagerie of fried and pickled side dishes, including a nutrient-heavy kelp salad made from simmered kombu. You might even find a piece of crispy-skin mackerel or a bit of steamed gyoza hiding in the bottom of your lunch, like a cereal-box toy. The main thrill of Tomo-E, we think, is wondering exactly what the two obaa-san have in store on a particular day. Bento: $5.25-7.25; 1569 Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 515-3964.