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:3. Bento Man:
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) 733-5316.2. Tempura House
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.