Pretty and eye-pleasing, a colorful multi-item meal within a single sumptuous box, the Japanese tradition known as bento has recently gone high profile in Sacramento with the opening of a collection of Bento Box restaurants scattered around town. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course—bento boxes have long been a staple in local restaurants—but the recent uptick of bento venues prompted Dollar-Wise to ask the usual question: Is it a bargain? The short answer: More than a bargain, it’s a great value, offering a well-balanced, healthful meal for typically around $10. But you need to pick your spots carefully: Plenty of places charge $13 (or more) for a meal you can get elsewhere for $8.
Here are four bento lunch bargains I found, all offering a similar spread: two mains (mostly proteins), sticky white rice, salad and, in some cases, miso soup and/or a cookie. Orange slices add a splash of bright color (and a little vitamin C). Note: Dinner prices are typically higher.
Sushi Cafe (above)
1221 Alhambra Blvd.
This spacious sushi joint, complete with a faux flowering cherry blossom tree and a sleek bar, was my hands-down favorite, and not just because I loved the ambiance (though that helped). For starters, servers trotted out a delicious cold cucumber salad (sunomono) the minute I sat down—a treat that would not be repeated at my other stops. But the bigger sell is this: The list of options for the two mains is long and full of surprises, including edamame, albacore sashimi and wakame (seaweed) salad. I ordered something more pedestrian: salmon teriyaki and agedashi tofu, big fluffy pillows of tofu lightly battered and fried. (Delicious.) Miso soup also came with the meal, as did two slices of California roll—a delight not to be found at the other bento boxeries. The only slightly sour notes were the salad, which was mostly iceberg, and the spotty service. But the rest was four stars all the way.
PRICE: Most lunches here are $7.50; I paid $1 extra for the salmon. It was still a steal.
California Roll & Grill
1725 Santa Clara Drive, Roseville
Big, bountiful boxes with generous portions are hallmarks at this tidy little spot, tucked away in a small strip mall. A cup of soothing miso soup starts the meal, followed by your choice of one of 12 combination boxes, most under $8. I chose Box #7, beef teriyaki and gyoza (pan-fried dumplings). The beef was tender and lean, served in a sweet yet mildly spicy teriyaki sauce. While the three gyoza had (to my taste buds) an unpleasant aftertaste, the forest-size spring mix salad, tossed in what seems to be the standard Japanese salad dressing—white, creamy and lightly sweet—more than made up for it. Super-friendly servers, too.
At $6.50 for your choice of two mains, soup, salad and rice, Miso was the best bargain I found. Like Sushi Cafe, Miso offers a long list of options, ranging from the usual suspects (teriyaki, tempura, tofu) to sushi rolls and bacon scallops. My teriyaki chicken, served in long, lean strips and light on the sauce, was nicely prepared, and the soup and salad passed muster, too. The only miss was the tempura, which was sadly greasy. But I wouldn’t let that stop me from going back—especially at these prices. A comfortable, pleasant place for a meal, Miso is across from Tower Cafe.
RATING: Very Good
2449 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento
What would a bento box story be without visiting a Bento Box? There are three in Sacramento; I tried the Loehmann’s Plaza location, which is clean, comfy and modern, with a bamboo motif. First, the bad news: You can get the $7.99 combination special only on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and there’s only one combo available each day; on Monday, for example, it’s chicken teriyaki and pot stickers. And you’d better be a teriyaki fan, too, because it’s featured in every weekday special. Bottom line: Bento Box doesn’t offer the freedom of choice of the other restaurants reviewed here, nor the range of options. But the combo—featuring two mains, rice, a green (iceberg) salad, a fun Asian coleslaw and a fortune cookie—is still a deal, and the food is fine.
RATING: Very Good