Though you’d like to believe that the plate lunch, sometimes called a “meat and three,” is a down-home, Southern or Mid-Western invention, it’s origin is actually Hawaiian. Even more fascinating, the Hawaiian plate lunch grew from the island-state’s Pan-Asian influence, most particularly the centuries-old Japanese “bento.”
Defined as convenient or convenience, bento is a type of lunch box designed for one person stuffed with items like steamed rice or noodles, meat or fish, and pickled or cooked vegetables. The box itself can range from beautifully hand-painted and crafted lacquer ware to disposable plastic or paper containers and the food is typically chosen and arranged to be not only nutritious and balanced, but also aesthetically pleasing. These days, Japanese mothers will often shape the food inside their children’s bento boxes to mimic anime characters in the hopes that by being cute, their children will find the food more palatable.
Although bento boxes (like lunch boxes) are more commonly prepared at home, in the United States they have become exceedingly affordable lunches offered by pretty much any Japanese restaurant one might happen upon. There are even restaurants and caterers across the country that focus solely on selling bento boxes. In restaurants around the Greater New Orleans Area, the bento boxes offered may not be styled like adorable cartoon characters, but the great ones are not only economical, but are definitely pleasing to both the palate and eye.
A building on Magazine Street had gone through several unsuccessful trials until Haiku Sushi moved in approximately five years ago. A sister to Royal Sushi in the French Quarter, Haiku is a casual spot with both indoor and outdoor seating, offering a menu consisting mainly of sushi, ramen and hibachi. Some of their special rolls are especially enticing like the Geisha Kiss — tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber – but if you’re hungry and watching your finances, you’d do better to order their bento box lunch. Choose a main protein like shrimp and vegetable tempura or chicken katsu (similar to paneed chicken, but with panko) and it’s served with miso soup or salad, steamed rice, a crispy fried spring roll and half of a California roll. At no more than $10.95, this is a lunch deal designed to please.
Way out in the wilds of Harahan on Citrus Boulevard is what many consider one of the best, yet most underappreciated Japanese restaurants in the GNO. Kyoto II, hidden among the big box stores and warehouses in the area, is a terrific spot to lunch and is frequented by some of New Orleans’ most respected foodies. The chefs are always busting out delicious, creative rolls and the menu features everything from udon to donburi. Kyoto II also offers several lunch specials or bento boxes like grilled salmon or chicken teriyaki served with a choice of a California roll, tempura or gyoza plus miso soup and salad for a grand total of $11.50. Maybe this column should go back to being called $15 & Under?
Speaking of which, even in Downtown New Orleans you can score a bento at a great price. Just try Tsunami, a restaurant that started in Lafayette and now has two more locations, one in Baton Rouge and the other here in New Orleans. Launched locally in 2017, Tsunami is a hip, funky and fancy spot to score Japanese cuisine with a Southern twist. It’s also one of the only spots offering (my favorite) pork tonkatsu, an odd, local rarity that continues to boggle. After all, who loves pork products more than the people of Louisiana? Anyhow, the bento offered at Tsunami is all $14 (only offered Monday – Friday at lunch) where diners can choose from mains like blackened salmon, tempura shrimp and pork gyoza; and add select sushi rolls like California or spicy tuna for a meal fit for a king. Their bento boxes also come with sunomono (cucumber) salad, steamed jasmine rice and a bowl of miso soup.
Finally, located in Gert Town, Mikimoto has been serving sushi to the denizens of New Orleans for over two decades. The tiny, box-like restaurant on the corner of S. Carrollton and Forshey Street offers plenty of the usual suspects, from sushi and tempura to udon and teriyaki, though there are also several dishes not oft found elsewhere like their wasabi mussels or the “Who Dat Popper,” a deep fried jalapeno stuffed with snow crab, spicy salmon and cream cheese. For lunch, they have a wide variety of bento, few of which cost more than ten bucks, all served with miso or salad and pan fried or steamed rice, like tuna steak with teriyaki, chicken katsu, tofu with vegetables and shrimp tempura.
*Article originally published in the January 2020 issue of Where Y’at Magazine
**Photo courtesy of Haiku Sushi