A bento box is a traditional Japanese box lunch consisting of rice, fish or meat, and a cooked or pickled vegetable. It is served in a compartmentalized box or tray, ranging from the lowliest fast-food Styrofoam container, to the most elaborate handcrafted lacquer-ware.
Over the centuries, the Japanese have raised the preparation of bento boxes to an art form. Contests are held to create the most beautiful box, factoring in everything from the design of the box itself to the arrangement and color of the dishes it contains. Japanese moms create bento boxes for their kids to take to school, where they are status symbols. Supposedly, rich kids have the most ostentatious ones.
The obvious American equivalent of the bento box is the compartmentalized lunch trays most American kids grew up with, not to mention the TV dinners presented in those vaguely toxic-looking metal trays. Needless to say, both of these are worlds apart from the aesthetic and culinary refinement of the bento box.
The tradition of the bento box is alive and well in Houston at many Japanese restaurants and sushi joints. They're usually offered as lunch specials. Boxes in Houston range from the very traditional to more Americanized versions that allow you to mix and match soup, salad, entree, vegetable and sushi.
One of my favorite places to experience traditional Japanese dining is Nippon Japanese Restaurant on Montrose near the bridge over US 59. Nippon lacks the flash of many upscale sushi restaurants, settling instead for a low-key, family-like, neighborhood-joint atmosphere. But in a Montrose neighborhood teeming with sushi joints, Nippon is always a solid choice. I've asked more than a few Japanese ex-pats where they would take friends visiting from Japan for sushi in Houston, and they inevitably mention Nippon as a possibility.
On a recent lunch visit to Nippon, I settled in at the sushi bar for a quick bento box lunch. The menu was printed in both English and Japanese. I opted for one of the most basic bento boxes, with a piece of broiled salmon as the entree, three sushi rolls, two pieces of nigiri, a generous portion of rice, fried tofu, boiled potatoes and pickled cucumbers. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, the food itself was delicious and filling. And at under $10, the bento box at Nippon Japanese Restaurant is a great alternative to the usual Houston lunch options, such as a two-meat barbecue plate or a $5 foot-long.