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October 8 - 14, 2009

• Making the grade in dorm cooking
by Jackie Burrell

• The Dessert Diva
A local chef shares her sweet secrets
by Danette Randall

Bento heaven on Pearl Street
Fans of Japanese fare will savor Japango
by Clay Fong

One of the enduring institutions of Japanese working life is the bento. Bento means “meal in a box” and can refer to anything from a homemade aggregation of fish, rice and preserved plum to ekiben, the pre-made meals encountered in train stations. In the U.S., it’s rare that a bento box is prepared at home, although it’s a staple of many Japanese restaurants.

Case in point is Pearl Street’s Japango, which features lunchtime makunouchi bento. Typically, restaurants and vendors, as opposed to home cooks, prepare this repast. Served in lacquered boxes, makunouchi meals feature hearty ingredients such as chicken and salmon. Happily, Japango’s midday bentos are reasonably priced, ranging from $7.50 to $9.50.

Japango’s setting strays far from the stereotypical Japanese restaurant trappings of tidal-wave woodcut prints and tatami mats.

Instead, the décor’s more engine-turned metal and bright colors, evoking the urban hipster rather than the Samurai wannabe. There’s nothing too avant-garde on the menu, although there are new-style selections such as raw fish splashed with flavorful oils. But there are also old favorites like buckwheat soba noodles and bentos brimming with teriyaki and tempura.

Colleague Zoe and I recently enjoyed lunch here, starting with a bowl of miso, fresh with a proper amount of salt. Zoe ordered a $7.50 basic bento consisting of chicken teriyaki and vegetable tempura. The white meat poultry was acceptably tender, and the sauce was neither too sweet nor salty and happily lacked the overly processed flavor common to most teriyakis.

The heat of the tempura indicated that it was freshly prepared, and a bite of fried bell pepper revealed exemplary tender-crisp qualities.

However, like so many interpretations of this Japanese treat, the breading was more reminiscent of a tavern onion ring than the delicate laciness of the most expertly prepared versions. More impressive was the texture of the rice, which perfectly blends the tactile qualities of sticky and fluffy. It also arrived hot, which hasn’t been my experience at similar restaurants.

We shared an $11.50 Colorado roll, which is a bit misleading, since the main ingredients of spicy tuna and albacore aren’t exactly indigenous to the Centennial State. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that this sushi was reasonably free of such Americanized ingredients as jalapeno peppers and cream cheese. Cucumber lent crunch and lightness, and a smattering of ponzu sauce, resembling Japanese A1 sauce, made a dip into soy sauce superfluous. Bits of fried onion provided additional seasoning. While some sushi rolls are delicate affairs, this was more of a blunt instrument, appealing to the voracious fish lover.

Sushi fan that I am, I couldn’t resist the $13.95 Katsuo Chan nigiri sushi platter. This selection of purely seafood sushi consisted of California roll, tuna, shrimp, salmon, scallop, yellowtail and eel. The shrimp was a touch dry and not as succulent as one would like. The salmon possessed my favored silky texture with a subtly briny yet creamy flavor. While the other pieces weren’t earthshaking in flavor and appearance, they represented solid value for money.

One could easily pay more for a takeout sandwich than what we paid for Zoe’s sit-down bento box. While my sushi wasn’t inexpensive, the quality and quantity were more than fair. Fans of Japanese food would be hard-pressed to do better for the price than they can at Boulder’s Japango.

Clay’s obscurity corner
A newer form of bento is called “entertaining bento,” which is as much a culinary endeavor as it is an artistic, and possibly obsessive-compulsive, one. The Japanese-language website provides some insight into this delightful, or, depending on your point of view, disturbing, phenomenon. Imagine opening a bento box to reveal a lunch resembling a pack of Hello Kitty refugees with fishcake faces and you’ll have a good grasp of what this trend is all about. Apparently the work of hyper-competitive parents, the target audience for these meals is young children, who likely scarf up these labor-intensive creations in mere seconds.

1136 Pearl St., Boulder

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