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The Great Bento Challenge: Imari vs. ?


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#1 skchai

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Posted 11 October 2004 - 09:40 PM

Sorry that it's been a long time since restaurant posts. I've got a bunch of reports in my head but no time to write things down. I'm also still vacillating about the best way to store my images only. But at any rate, until I figure all that out, here is a something to fill the gap - Bento.

As many of you already know, the bento is the great Japanese compartmentalized box lunch that you can take anywhere you want to eat. The classic (simplest) form is the hinomaru (named after the Japanese flag), which is simply a rectangular bed of white rice with a single umeboshi (very salty pickled Japanese plum/apricot) stuck in the middle. Though the basic concept has been around at least since the beginning of the Edo period (early 17th century) more complex bento have been developed over the years, culminating in the makunouchi (lit. "parting of the curtains") bento, which is a monster box containing numerous compartments and just about every delicacy you can think of (along with a somewhat subdued-looking bed of rice in one corner), designed for eating while viewing Kabuki plays. Another popular and somewhat upscale form of bento is the ekiben (station bento), which is featured at virtually every regional stations on the Japanese railroad lines, and is supposed represents the best of local specialities. On the other spectrum of things, there are the numerous cheap, fast-food bento places, exemplified by giant chains such as Hokka Hokka Tei and Honke Kamadoya.

Bento have long been a mainstay of Hawai`i cuisine as well, though here bento are almost exclusively fast food. Moreover, the stuff that you find in local bentos are often quite different from what you might expect in Japan. In fact, sometimes the only thing in common with traditional Japanese bentos is the the rectangle of rice and the ubiquitous little green slip of plastic "lawn" that is somehow supposed to add color to the whole things. The rest of the compartments may contain things like Spam (of course), teri beef, fried chicken, mahimahi, and even adobo. If fact, as the thickness of the box becomes flatter and flatter, the local bento gradually morphs into a "mixed plate", of which we hope to run another challenge sometime in the future. Of course, bentos in Japan have been evolving as well, so the contrast between Japanese and local-style bento may not be as great as I'm picturing it. But you can still tell the difference.

At any rate, let me start by identifying my favorite Japanese-style bento place in Honolulu:

Imari
661 Keeaumoku St. #102
808 941-8866

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Imari is right next to the "Samsung" (sic) Plaza on Ke`eaumoku, facing the street. It's next to the Subway shop, as well as another bento place called Aya, which might be good but I have no idea since every chance I get I go to Imari.

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The inside gives you a hint of the quality. One of the marks of a good restaurant of the inexpensive kind is the existence a clean but "busy" interior with every nook and cranny filled with objects collected over the years. Doesn't matter what they are: knicknacks from the owner's collection, testimonials from obscure celebrities, pictures of sponsored softball teams, etc. A busy interior indicates the cumulative amount of attention that the owner attention into the place, and most placeswith such interiors serve great food. Note that the converse doesn't apply, since upper-crust places may have good food but have hired an interior designer who has told them that a "spare design" is better than anything else, and a new restaurant of course may not have time to collect much of anything.

You can pick from two-item or three-item bentos. A LOT of choices, each of them showing some forethought and care in preparation.

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Here are our three-items. Note the slick rubber-banding, another good sign in bento or okazu.

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First bento combo: Wafu (Japanese-style) Hamburger, Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) chunk, Chicken Karaage (marinated fried). Note the layer of freshly shredded daikon and ponzu (soy citrus) sauce on the hamburger. The tonkatsu and karaage are both bite size and freshly fried. Quantity is not skimpy at all. Sidedishes include typically mashed-up Japanese potato salad and a nice "kinpira" of stir-fried gobo, carrots, and lotus root (the latter much better than you would normally expect at a fast food bento). The rice has not only the requisite umeboshi, but also a scattering of sansai (mountain veggies) and hijiki (a cruncy seaweed). It's those nice touches that really put Imari above the other places I've tried.


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Second bento combo: Ginger pork, Aji (horse mackeral?) fry, Unagi (freshwater eel) kabayaki. Unagi is usually very expensive, but not unusually so here. Ginger pork is gingery but not too wet as you sometimes get in other places. Aji fry is something you don't get at most other bento places (even Japanese) around here, but interestingly enough show up at some local okazuya. Same side dishes.

So that's my favorite for the Japanese-style. Will try to start listing local-style bentos soon. In the meantime - what are your favorite bento places?

Sun-Ki Chai
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#2 glossyp

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Posted 11 October 2004 - 10:26 PM

What a great challenge! Having enjoyed all types of bento from Hokkaido to Shimonoseki including the famous (sometimes infamous) station bentos, I will set forth to find great bento in Hawaii.
"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

#3 PakePorkChop

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Posted 13 October 2004 - 12:58 AM

As usual, SK, your choice is excellent. I have nothing to add to your comments. Would you venture to establish a dictionary of Hawaiian Cuisine by distinguishing between the bento, plate lunch, and okazuya plate? or has Rachel already accomplished that?

#4 caroline

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Posted 13 October 2004 - 07:57 AM

or has Rachel already accomplished that?
Hello PakePorkChop,

Rachel most certainly hasn't accomplished that. Indeed she studiously avoided it. so she's love to hear Sun-Ki's take as well,

Rachel
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#5 rlivings

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Posted 13 October 2004 - 02:46 PM

great review skchai, I've tried the crab croquette bento and it was really tasty. I haven't eaten at many japanese style restaurants so I don't know if this is common but Minato restaurant (near the King Street Times market) has a sweet potato salad which is similar to Imari's, I like it.

#6 torakris

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Posted 13 October 2004 - 03:12 PM

you are making me want to move back to Hawaii..... :angry: :biggrin:
great pictures!!

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#7 skchai

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Posted 15 October 2004 - 01:38 PM

Thanks, Kristin.

Rlivings, I've seen the "smashed" potato salad at so many of the bento places that I've gone to that I assume it's the standard. Minato's version seems to be a kind of creative adaptation. I've been there, but haven't had the chance to try it.

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#8 skchai

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Posted 15 October 2004 - 02:06 PM

O.K. the difference between bento, plate lunch, and okazuya. Honestly have no idea if there is any clear objective definition, since local usage plays around quite a bit with the original Japanese definitions for bento and okazu. However, here's my totally spurious attempt to come up with a clear typology:

<br><br>The thing all three have in common is that they are all Asian-influenced takeout establishments.

<br><br>Okazuya is the easiest to distinguish, I think.

<ul>
<li>If and only if the norm is to pick and choose any combination of small dishes you want (i.e. there is no required choice of starch), then it is an okazuya, not a plate lunch or bento. Unless it is a manapua shop.</li>
</ul>

Other "okazu-ish" qualities that contribute, but are neither necessary nor sufficient to a eating establishment being labeled as such:

<ul>
<li>Specialization in traditional Japanese home cooking. I recently came across a Japanese cookbook specializing in "old-fashioned" dishes - a lot of these are the kind you can find in okazuya in Honolulu. But as I mentioned before, the food doesn't have to be Japanese to be called okazu in Hawai`i. Conversely, and ironically, some of the most traditionally Japanese okazuya in Honolulu are the ones that call themselves "delicatessens".</li>

<li>Food that is prepared in advance and on display in a glass case or on the countertop.</li>

<li>Food that is taken out wrapped in butcher paper or packed into a square pie carton. This is the historical way of okazu in Honolulu, but more and more places are resorting to the styro clamshell.</li>
</ul>

Bento and plate lunch is harder. Both require rice, but:

<ul>
<li>If it is in a plastic compartmentalized Japanese bento box, then it is obviously a bento. But this is not a necessary condition, since a lot of local bento are served in flat or uncompartmentalized containers. The shape of the container matters as well; the squarer the container, the more "bentoish".

<li>Bento tends to come with a larger number of non-rice (okazu!) items than plate lunches, but there are plenty of exceptions. There are of course such thing as single item bentos. Furthermore, Gracie's mixed plate comes with three "main dishes" plus mac salad, kim chee, and chow fun in addition to the rice. And of course Masu's Massive specials may have as many as five or six main dishes on a single plate.

<li>If it has mac salad, it is probably plate lunch. If it has takuwan, it is probably a bento.

<li>Perhaps the clearest difference is that bento rice is served flat and rectangular, while plate lunch rice is served in the form of "two scoops".
</ul>

So now, for your viewing enjoyment, is the the okazu-bento-plate lunch matrix of "ideal types":

<br><br>

<table border=1>
<tr>
<td>
<td><b>Okazuya</td>
<td><b>Bento</td>
<td><b>Plate Lunch</td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td><b>Container</td>
<td>pie box, brown <br>butcher paper</td>
<td>compartmentalized <br>black plastic, <br>fake plastic lawn</td>
<td>regular paper <br>plate</td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td><b>Rice</td>
<td>no rice necessary, <br>otherwise musubi</td>
<td>flat rectangle of rice</td>
<td>two ice cream <br>scoops of rice</td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td><b>Characteristic <br>Side Dishes</td>
<td>no clear distinction <br>between "main" and "side"</td>
<td>takuwan, kinpira gobo</td>
<td>mac salad</td>
</tr>
</table>

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host


#9 caroline

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Posted 20 October 2004 - 08:05 AM

Thanks Sun-Ki. I specially like the ideal types,

Rachel
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#10 skchai

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Posted 25 October 2004 - 11:58 AM

Zippy's
http://www.zippys.com/

Here, as a basis of comparison is a typical local bento. As typical as you can get - the Zip-pac. This mainstay of the fast food industry has been around for about 30 years and has not changed its composition in any significant way during the entire time, except for the addition of a light coating of nori furikake (ground laver seaweed topping) to the rice.

Top to bottom on the left hand side of the container: fried chicken thigh, fried hoki, teri beef, and Spam.

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This illustrates some differences between the "local" and "Japanese" bento - at least in Hawai`i, the local version is generally somewhat cheaper, has fewer side dishes but more meat, and comes with somewhat less fancy packaging. More importantly, the local version almost always features typical standard items, most notably Spam and teri beef. If fact, I can't recall ever coming across a mixed bento that didn't contain one or both of these at any Honolulu eating establishment not specifically specializing in Japanese food.

Is the local bento more "Westernized" than the Japanese version? It's not clear to me that teri beef and even Spam (at least as a hot lunch entree) are any more "Western" than wafu hamburger and tonkatsu. Moreover, bentos in Japan can nowadays contain just about any dish under the sun, Western or non-Western (Hokkahokkatei once ran a "curries of the world" special that offered bentos featuring suitably unrecognizable green Thai curry and chicken korma). I wouldn't be surprised if there is an "Aloha Aloha" shop somewhere in Japan that specializes in teri beef and Spam bento. Indeed it may be more appropriate to say that the local bento is simply a small "satellite" in the Japanese bento universe, while a place like Imari represents a somewhat upscale part of the "core".

Sun-Ki Chai
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#11 kokimotonyc

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Posted 28 October 2004 - 05:05 PM

Imari is an excellent place to pick up some great bento! In one of my oh-too-rare visits to my hometown I stopped by here purely by accident and was pleasantly surprised. I am looking forward to going there again when I visit over Thanksgiving weekend to see my beloved Northwestern Wildcats battle my almost-as-beloved UH RAINBOW Warriors.

Love your taxonomy of bento/okazuya/plate lunch, SK. Agree with it completely.

#12 torakris

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Posted 28 October 2004 - 05:39 PM

I wouldn't be surprised if there is an "Aloha Aloha" shop somewhere in Japan that specializes teri beef and Spam bento.  Indeed it may be more appropriate to say that the local bento is simply a small "satellite" in the Japanese bento universe, while a place like Imari represents a somewhat upscale part of the "core".

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not exactly a bento, but sort of like this?
http://www.tonys.jp/menu2.html
an example of Hawaiian food in Japan, look at the last picture on the right (click on it to see a larger version), this is labeled as a Hawaiian style breakfast.....

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#13 skchai

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Posted 29 October 2004 - 03:48 PM

kokimotonyc - if you have some spare time, let us know when you're in town. Maybe we can schedule an egullet thing to Imari or somewhere. By then Timmy Chang (UH QB) should have broken the all-time NCAA passing record - should be an interesting game.

Kristen - that was a very cool site. Like how they have "Kona" and "Honolulu" branches although they all seem to be Fukuoka somewhere. The menu is really interesting too - Japanized local Hawai`i food. It's kind of full circle, since much of local cuisine in Hawai`i has Japanese origins.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#14 skchai

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 01:08 AM

Okata Bento
3616 Waialae Ave., Kaimuki 96816
808 737-6063

Posted Image

O.K., another version of the mixed bento, from Okata Bento on Waialae Ave. in Kaimuki, a place that inspires some of the strongest loyalty you'll see anywhere from its repeat customers. At first glance, it doesn't look like much, unadorned even for a local bento. It's hard to convey - you have to taste it, I guess. Everything here is cooked to order, not (or hardly) greasy at all despite the lineup of tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), mahimahi fillet, fried spam, and a rolled omelette. And cheap.

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And, moving away from the mixed bentos, here's a little single-item number (mochiko chicken) sold out of one of the tiny kiosks on the University of Hawai`i at Manoa campus. Note that even single-item bentos must have some kind of "side dish" meat, usually of the processed pork kind. Here is no Spam, but to make up for it you have Portuguese Sausage and little links of Vienna Sausages, along with the obligatory takuwan (yellow pickled radish) and slice of pink swirly kamaboko (block-shaped fishcake).

Sun-Ki Chai
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#15 skchai

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Posted 03 November 2004 - 12:44 AM

BTW, if any of you from out of state are wondering what Mochiko Chicken is, it's one of the great local fast food discoveries of the 1980s that is now featured on plate lunch and bento menus throughout the state. It's made from chicken thigh soaked in a soy sauce-based marinade then dipped in mochiko (glutinous rice flour) before being deep fried. It's got a strange kind of crunch that becomes addictive after a while - not the hard-on-the-teeth kind. but more of an initially chewy but ultimately melting texture. . .

Sun-Ki Chai
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#16 kokimotonyc

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Posted 04 November 2004 - 08:31 PM

mmm. Mochiko chicken. Would love to get together, sk. Don't know what my schedule will be like, though. Maybe Tuesday for lunch? The venue could be anywhere; my only concern with Imari is lack of seating, if I recall correctly. Would love to eat the food from there, though.

#17 skchai

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 01:10 AM

If you have time while you're here, would be nice to meet. The most efficient way to get people together from the board seems to be to start a thread shortly before you arive suggesting a get-together with locations and approx. times you're available.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#18 skchai

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Posted 22 November 2004 - 02:24 AM

KC Drive Inn
1029 Kapahulu Avenue
808 737-5581

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Yet another local-style bento, from the soon-to-be lamented KC Drive-In on Kapahulu Ave. This is their "alternative" mixed bento without teri beef or spam. Just shoyu chicken and fried mahimahi, along with the portuguese sausage, kamaboko, and furikake on top the rice.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#19 skchai

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 02:48 AM

O.K., forget about the local-style bentos for now. Here are a couple of fringe bentos for those who have had enough of teri-spam and katsu-ume:

Well Bento
2570 S. Beretania St. 204
Honolulu HI 96826
808 941-5261

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How about a vegan bento? There is such a thing at Well Bento in the middle of the "health food triangle" surrounded by University, Beretania, and King Streets. This place specializes in alternative bento offerings, some vegetarian and all, I believe, non-dairy. The flame grilled tempeh (fermented crushed soybean blocks) number above is served with a not-too-sweet tamari (soy sauce with no wheat) teriyaki. Underneath the big pile of tempeh is a very small amount (by local standards) of brown rice. The carrots and potatoes are freshly grilled along with the tempeh, so you need to wait at least 10 minutes for your bento to be ready, unless you are so together to have phoned your order. Both the mac salad and cole slaw are prepared with a special house-made "mayonnaise" that contains pureed tofu.

Besides tempeh, you can get as your main dish a choice of seitan (wheat gluten), tofu, as well as a variety of transitionals such as chicken, salmon, and flank steak. So I guess if you are a real macrobiotic purist you wouldn't feel safe. In fact, the nonveg dishes are among the most popular among the lunchtime crowd. Each entrée is prepared with a choice of tamari teriyaki sauce, "Cajun" spices, or maple barbecue sauce. The sides are all the same regardless. Besides the mix-and-match, there are usually a few specials, which I haven't had a chance to try. . .

Shirokiya
1450 Ala Moana Blvd. 2250 (Ala Moana Center)
Honolulu HI 96814
808 973-9111
http://www.shirokiya.com/

Posted Image

How about a luxury bento (relatively speaking, at $14.95) from Shirokiya's upper floor food court?

Shirokiya's Ala Moana store is the sole remaining branch anywhere of what was Japan's first department store. It's a long story - skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know. Shirokiya was an Edo-period supplier of kimonos and textiles, founded in 1662, which transformed itself into a department store in the early part of the 20th century. The deadly fire at the original Nihonbashi branch of the department store in 1932 was one of the defining events in the history of modern Tokyo, and is deemed responsible, bizarrely enough, for first widespread use of underwear in Japan. It was widely publicized in the newspapers of the time that the deaths in the fire were caused by the fact that women dressed in kimono refused to slide down safety ropes with two hands because they were afraid to expose themselves. Shirokiya was bought up in 1958 by the Tokyu conglomerate, who transformed the Japan branches into Tokyu Department Stores, while leaving the Shirokiya name operating in Honolulu. The Honolulu Shirokiya was sold a few years ago Tokyu to some local interests and is now independent. So slice of Japanese business history survives only in Honolulu. It's entirely possible the same thing will happen to Daiei!

At any rate, Shirokiya's upper floor features a prepared food section similar, though smaller in size, to the huge food basements in major Japanese department stores. Among the featured stalls there are wagashi specialist Minamoto Kitchoan and cream puff cult Beard Papa. Another feature there is a special section featuring a rotating array of bento purveyors flown in from Japan. This particular one was an "okesa" bento featuring, from the upper left corner: salted salmon, soy-braised scallops, token mixed pickle, pickled ginger, ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), shredded crab, and braised oyster, with intact crab leg meat adorning the top. Decently fresh given the price and the fact that it was being churned out in large quantities. But don't go there looking for it now; it's already gone.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#20 reid

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 08:44 PM

Hi Sun Ki,

Thanks for continuing this forum on bentos. I find it quite fascinating. One thing I'd like to point out to you about your post on Shirokiya. Perhaps you should make mention that Beard Papa was only a temporary addition. From what I understand, they are already gone. Too bad...the creme puffs were amazing.

#21 PakePorkChop

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Posted 06 December 2004 - 07:46 AM

Hi Sun Ki,

Thanks for continuing this forum on bentos.  I find it quite fascinating.  One thing I'd like to point out to you about your post on Shirokiya.  Perhaps you should make mention that Beard Papa was only a temporary addition.  From what I understand, they are already gone.  Too bad...the creme puffs were amazing.

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Exemplary as always, SK!

Quick note: The plates from Well Bento seem to be hovering on the edge of, if not in, the plate lunch universe rather than bento. The two features that raise the question are the wait for items to be cooked and the mac salad. What would Darwin say?

#22 skchai

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Posted 08 December 2004 - 01:08 AM

Reid - mahalos for the clarification on Beard Papa. So they were one of those temporary displays! But given how crazy people went over them, let's hope they'll decide to locate here permanently.

PPC - you're right - the fact that the food is cooked to order is very un-bentoish. The main reason I classified Well Bento as a bento is because, well, they call themselves that! But the presentation is really plate-lunch like. The question is, which is higher on the evolutionary scale?

Sun-Ki Chai
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Former Hawaii Forum Host