You know that old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” While true, it isn’t an expression that should be applied metaphorically. For instance: restaurants can oftentimes be judged accurately by the image that they present before you even walk in the door. I’ve been known to avoid certain restaurants because of their “cover.” A good example of this behavior is Bento. Despite passing this popular Japanese restaurant twice a day, nearly every day, I never gave serious consideration to stopping in. Part of this is their schedule; they close for three hours between lunch and dinner service. But I mostly avoided it because of the crowd that it tends to attract: fraternity brodogs and the Tempo shorts throng. Every time the door opened it seemed like Dave Matthews Band or Owl City or some musical dreck leaked out. I finally decided to eat at Bento a couple of times over the past week. The pertinent question then is does that old saying about books and covers hold metaphorical weight for Bento? The answer: no, the cover was entirely representative of the restaurant at large.
The interior of Bento is two cramped dining rooms, everything clean and white and sandalwood colored. I am reminded more of a dentist’s office than a Japanese restaurant, but that’s fine. Bento takes their small space and makes the most of it, with a surprisingly large amount of tables and flexibility. The wait staff, at least during the lunch hours in which I visited, was completely young twentysomethings. They are nice and efficient, if a little aloof and ill prepared to fully describe the menu.
A personal marker for quality that I have for Japanese-American restaurants is their execution of soup. Many Japanese soups are miracle balancing acts of texture and flavor. I walked into Bento craving ramen, but certainly not expecting to be able to order any. But the menu did have an Udon noodle soup, so I didn’t hesitate to order it. My waiter brought over a large bowl of steaming-hot clear broth. Inside were lots of thick udon and plenty of sliced scallions and carrots. A particularly unflavorful stick of tempura prawn (or something intended to resemble prawn) was jutting up out of the bowl, but I chose to eat around it. It was a pretty average bowl of udon, at best. The udon themselves were somewhat underdone, not chewy or toothsome but doughy and hard to negotiate. The broth was very light, which worked well on a summer’s day, but it was missing some complexity (read: flavor). While bland, this bowl of soup was too big to finish. It represents a pretty good value for $8, especially if you’re nursing a cold.
I noticed that most everyone in the dining room was opting for Bento’s namesake bento box lunch specials, so I opted for one of my own the next time I came in. The boxes range from $7-$9, and contain a hibachi-grilled meat, your choice of salad or soup, your choice of steamed or fried rice, a handful of edemame and some orange slices. I went with something called the “Bento chicken,” implying a house specialty. The little bites of chicken actually taste considerably like the chicken nuggets at Chick-Fil-A – an initial savory character losing the war of attrition to sweetness – only not fried. I opted for the fried rice, only because it seemed like a novelty (the Japanese don’t traditionally serve fried rice; it’s a Chinese thing). As far as fried rice goes, it might just be the best in Tuscaloosa. The edamame was the best part of the plate; I wish that I had two servings of the slightly briny soybeans to munch on. Bento misses again on the lunch soup; a flavorless broth with spongy sliced mushrooms, diced scallions, and what appears to be egg white somehow lending nothing to the broth apart from a nicely delicate aroma.
Bento has a nice array of sushi choices. The list favors maki (which makes sense, given the clientele), but has a respectable list of nigiri options as well. While there are maki specials for lunch, I did not opt for any sushi, and I didn’t notice any other patrons ordering sushi either. Based on my average-at-best meals at Bento thus far, I don’t think I’m going to shell out for their sushi anytime soon. It’s tough to come back from “meh.”
Bento is a fine-enough lunch option on the Strip, that is if you can tolerate the clientele and the annoying music playing in the dining room. It’s reasonably fast and well-portioned for the price. For me, the food is too uninspired to warrant eating there. Japanese food is subtle, but complex. Bento’s food is not complex, and is about as authentically Japanese as Pita Pit is authentically Greek. If you’re the kind of person who really enjoys Americanized Cantonese places, like Swen for instance, then you should probably check out Bento; I think you’ll enjoy the change-of-pace and find plenty of options agreeable to your palate.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-2pm.
Dinner: Every night 5pm-9pm.