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Zen Bento

On one plate...


Zen Bento is a tiny speck of an eatery across 10th Street from the Idanha Hotel, with a spare menu and hours limited exclusively to lunch. As I approached Zen Bento the other day for a bit of a bite, the smell of their outdoor barbeque grill where all the meat is cooked, enticed me like a cartoon's visible aroma forking into vaporous fingers to drag me the rest of the way to the restaurant by my helpless nostrils. Man, it smelled wonderful.

The Zen Bento menu offers a choice of chicken, beef, veggie, tofu or salmon (on Tuesdays and Fridays) bento, with fresh steamed vegetables over white or brown rice and a choice of sauces. There are a couple of salad and sushi offerings, some sides (consisting mostly of stuff that's on the menu in other forms) and beverages.

But back to the bento boxes: On your meat/veggie/rice combo, Zen Bento offers six different sauces, each mouth-watering, and diners aren't limited to just one flavor of sauce-they'll do a half-and-half or put it on the side. And they don't make you feel picky for asking.

I settled on the chicken bento with half teriyaki, half Zen (a "medium hot sweet chili" sauce). When the box came out moments after ordering, it was packed with rice, carrots, green onions, zucchini and chunks of chicken. The grilled meat was tender, with that slightly smoky flavor that barbequed food has. The vegetables were just right-not limp but not so crispy they were undercooked. Under the meat and veggies was a fluffy bed of white rice and bringing it all together was the sauce. Oh, the sauce. I'm of the opinion that the sauce is what makes or breaks these kinds of dishes, and the teriyaki/Zen combo was awesome. A bit sweet, a bit savory, a bit spicy, it hit all the best flavor points. My lunch companion-not a Zen Bento novice like myself-had the tofu bento with brown rice ($.75 extra) and a ginger soy sauce. It was likewise quite tasty.

Overwhelming options don't seem to be what Zen Bento is about. They have a few key menu items-touted for their simplicity, their flavor and their healthiness-that they do extremely well. You just feel good after eating something so yummy that's also good for you. Zen Bento could be habit-forming.

-Sara Beitia's life sometimes seems like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.