In Japan, the words for “meal” and “cooked rice” are the same: “gohan.”
When you ask if someone has eaten, you are actually saying: Have you had rice?
Thus, it should come as no surprise that home-cooked, Japanese-style meals are heavy in rice. And properly prepared, steamed rice is essential to a good Japanese meal.
Bend-o Bento Japanese Kitchen, which opened March 11 in an industrial neighborhood on Bend's east side, may be the most authentic restaurant of its kind in Central Oregon. Diners don't come here looking for sushi or ramen or teriyaki. But they find the kind of food that is more typically served in Japanese homes and urban snack bars.
By definition, a “bento” is a box lunch. In addition to rice, it contains meat or fish, as well as a couple of cooked or pickled vegetables. Typically served in partitioned, box-shaped containers, bento is a popular light meal in train stations and department-store delis, as well as in private residences.
Bend-o Bento owners Yukiko McLaughlin and Keiko Wysuph are natives of Japan who have lived in Central Oregon for 10 and six years, respectively.
They bring to their tiny cafe — which has a mere eight counter seats and a couple of outdoor picnic tables — not only authentic food from their homeland, but a truly gracious level of hospitality.
Twice at this delightful cafe I have ordered bento meals — both, of course, built around a generous serving of rice steamed so perfectly that it was almost sushi quality. A small plum was set in the center of the rice, which was sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
My first meal ($8.50) featured a main course of yakiniku: strips of steak grilled with a soy-based barbecue marinade. The beef was tender and tasty. My sides included pickled and sliced daikon (Japanese radish) and a moist and delicious potato salad.
I “super-sized” my second bento lunch, paying $9.99 for a deluxe plate. This featured a bowl of miso soup as a starter, and not one but two meat choices.
Though nothing out of the ordinary, the soup was very good. Made from standard miso paste (its main ingredients including soy, barley and rice), it incorporated bits of tofu, green onion and wakame seaweed.
Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) was crusted in panko breading, deep-fried and served with a brown gravy on the side. Kara'age (fried chicken) was tender on the inside, within a dry-dusting of flour, and was not greasy in the slightest. But I thought that a dipping sauce might have enhanced the taste.
My plate had three side dishes. A lightly vinegared bean-thread salad was blended with julienned carrots and red bell peppers. Steamed broccoli, cooked to al dente consistency, was served with plum tomatoes. But my favorite was a warm salad of gobo, or burdock root, lightly braised in sake, sugar and soy sauce.
The menu includes not only bento, but also three choices of donburi, or rice bowls, priced at $6.
I tried the most exotic of the trio, a Korean-style “bibinda.” I didn't love it. Although the vegetables — spinach, bean sprouts and shredded carrot, all of them sauteed — were tasty, I was disappointed in the chopped stewed beef, which had little flavor of its own. The dish was served upon rice with strips of cooked egg and homemade kimchee.
Now, kimchee is an acquired taste. Best described as fermented cabbage, heavily spiced with garlic and chilies, it doesn't appeal to many westerners. I have learned to enjoy it on occasion, but I preferred a savory red-bean paste that was offered as an accompaniment to the rice and vegetables.
A friend who ordered a “gyudon” donburi was more pleased. This featured stewed beef and onion over rice. For vegetarians, there is also a “yasai-tofudon” (veggies and tofu) alternative.
Another Bend-o Bento menu option is onigiri (rice balls), which the menu offers as “Japan's most popular portable snack!”
For just $2, these are exactly what they appear to be — balls of sticky rice wrapped in cello-wrap. They come stuffed with edamame (vegetarian), salmon or a tuna-mayonnaise blend. I opted for the latter, and found that it was essentially an albacore tuna salad. I considered it a new version of an old favorite.
McLaughlin and Wysuph told me that the most popular menu choice in their café is grilled salmon, which I have yet to sample.
“We get it fresh frozen,” Wysuph said. “We filet the meat, season it with sea salt and grill it. That's how we cook it in Japan. We don't usually eat sushi at home, except on special occasions.”
Wysuph, a native of Kofu, Japan, west of Tokyo, moved to Bend six years ago with her husband, Todd Wysuph, whom she met in Japan. McLaughlin, who comes from the Tokyo neighborhood of Setagaya, has been in Bend since 2002; she met her husband, Joe McLaughlin, while visiting friends who then owned the Don Don Japanese Kitchen in downtown Bend.
The families first laid the groundwork for Bend-o Bento in September of 2011. When New York Subs vacated a former lunch spot on Wilson Avenue, just east of Parr Lumber and west of 15th Avenue, they found their ideal location.
Angel Thai has opened a second location in Bend in the former premises of Sumi's Japanese Restaurant, whose owner, Sumi Douglass, has moved from Central Oregon. The Angel Thai menu includes pad Thai and other noodle dishes, curries and the barbecued duck that is the restaurant's specialty. 1444 N.W. College Way (at Newport Avenue), Bend; 541-385-9191. Also at 1900 N.E. Division St., Bend; 541-388-5177, www.angelthaicuisines.com.
The Jackalope Grill will close its Scandia Plaza location in southeast Bend after dinner Saturday night. According to owners Tim and Kathy Garling, the restaurant has tentatively scheduled a June 25 soft opening in its new downtown Bend location, facing Lava Road on the ground floor of the municipal parking garage. 541-318-8435, www.jackalopegrill.com.