The to-go hit of the pandemic is here to stay.
If you can find a silver lining in a pandemic, it’s easily the entrepreneurship and ingenuity of LA’s restaurant community. Forced with shutdowns and re-openings and half openings and quarter openings, LA’s restaurateurs needed to get creative.
And for the cliché proverb – necessity is the mother of invention.
The problem was how to turn an indoor dining enterprise into a to-go shop overnight while maintaining quality. For the Japanese restaurant owners and chefs, the answer resided in a simple little treat: the bento box.
For the uninitiated, a bento box is a traditional Japanese take-out container for one. It usually consists of a combination of rice, fish (raw and/or cooked), a meat, vegetables (often pickled), and other Japanese treats that will fill you up for lunch. The word bento means ‘convenient’ and its origins date back centuries and was designed for workers on the go.
One of the most beautiful aspects of LA’s restaurant community is taking something old, turning it on its head, making it into art, and finding an audience to appreciate it. The bento box trend turned out to be the perfect canvass for the city’s chef artisans to ply their trades during the world’s most tumultuous moments.
Here are some of the best LA has to offer:
Running an intimate, indoor, tightly packed restaurant in the middle of the pandemic was never what chef Brandon Hayato Go had in mind. But the one-Michelin-starred chef was determined to take his stunning washoku cooking (all five Japanese cooking techniques including grilling, steaming, frying, simmering, and sashimi) and reinterpret it for guests on the go. The result is a well-thought-out bento that includes the whole range of Japanese cuisine and comes in a well-crafted wooden box. It’s equal parts art and food and is undeniably the best that LA has to offer.
From the geniuses behind two-Michelin-starred n/naka, n/soto is chefs Niki and Carole lida-Nakayama’s answer to the pandemic. At the height of Covid in LA, n/naka began turning their cuisine into elaborate bento boxes that sold out quickly and formed a cult following across the city. With the immense success of the take-out program, the team decided to open n/soto, which is an Ekiben bento-centric paradise. Ekiben bento is derived from ‘eki,’ which means train station and where you can find elaborate boxes in stations around Japan. The Nakayama’s version is a bit more elaborate and is filled with goodies like kara-age fried chicken, shrimp and avocado inari sushi, salmon teriyaki, and much, much more.
One of the newest sushi joints in the city, Sushi Tama is also one of the best. Chef Hideyuki Yoshimoto brought his extensive training from the bowels of Tokyo’s fish market and introduced it to Robertson Boulevard. The bento here is a mouthwatering surf n’ turf box that includes A-5 Japanese wagyu, shrimp, salmon, tuna, Hamachi and some chef-choice surprises.
The team behind SUGARFISH is notorious for their attention to detail and meticulousness when it comes to putting out anything new. At KazuNori, their beloved handroll bar, and all SUGARFISH locations in LA, the group decided to flex their chops a little and introduced a beautiful bento during the pandemic. The Toro Tataki Bento features sustainably-ranched bluefin tuna, along with sushi rice, nori strips, ginger, kampyo, and is covered in salmon eggs, masago (fish roe), and cucumber.
Gozen is one of the newest restaurant openings in LA and they came out swinging with a geometrically stunning bento box. The concept behind Gozen is derived from the word ‘go’ which means ‘five’ in Japanese. Gozen is really a portmanteau of Go Zen and the five good things they tout are vegetables, water, sake, meat, and seafood. All five are on full display as the bento boxes are stacked atop each other in a wholly unique presentation.
Tucked away inside the La Peer Hotel is a little business with a great bento. Soosh! hails from Brian Ogawa (former head sushi chef of Nobu and Matsuhisa) and Jazmine Valte (former brand strategist and event producer) who combined forces to make gorgeous boxes filled with fresh fish, sushi rice, and loads of fixings. The duo is also known for their groundbreaking home-a-kase, an at-home dining experience where they bring their artistry into your living room.