Customized Japanese fare

2367 San Diego Ave. (Old Town)
Prices: Sandwiches and meals, $4.50 to $10

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

Chicken katsu on ciabatta with spicy jalapeno-cilantro sauce (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The meats, veggies and sauces that fill traditional bento boxes aren’t necessarily confined to their orderly compartments at BentoWich, where owner Akiyo Tatsumi presents meal compositions that you won’t find at other Japanese eateries.

If you choose to order outside “the box,” ingredients like chicken katsu and pickled daikon radishes can be tucked into a fresh ciabatta roll instead. More unusual is the option for Swiss or American cheese. From a host of additional elements, customers can assign them to stir-fried noodles or large salads as well, leaving you as the chief designer of your meal.

For char siu roasted pork, which is actually a Chinese preparation of the meat glazed in honey and sherry, we opted for the bento plan. Two side dishes are included, with the creamy Asian coleslaw and medley of sautéed vegetables striking exceptional harmony to the mound of tender pork ribbons. The bento boxes also come with a small salad and brown or white rice, the latter cooked expertly to a semi-sticky consistency.

As with sandwiches, noodles or entrée salads, the bento choices extend to a sauce and a dressing for the greens. We loved how the sweet, thick onion jam enlivened our steamy white rice when the two rubbed together while miso-Caesar dressing breathed life into an otherwise plain side salad. Bright-orange ginger dressing that we tried on a salad accompanying a noodle dish tasted even snappier, although it’s best enjoyed off to the side as a palate cleanser rather than if dominating a main-course salad.

When customizing a sandwich, we chose crispy chicken katsu battered in panko crumbs as our protein; avocado and Swiss cheese as toppings and zesty jalapeno-cilantro sauce as the condiment. The combination was foolproof, tasting overall like top-notch fried chicken casting a few Southwest-style sparks from the jalapeno puree.

For a noodle entrée, we gravitated to thinly sliced prime rib that is roasted in-house, pairing it to wedges of avocado and a joyous repeat of the sautéed vegetables. By default, the noodle dishes and their selected proteins are stir fried in yakiniku, an addicting admixture of soy sauce, fruits, garlic and ginger. Like all of the homemade sauces we sampled, it was multidimensional in flavor, and with no salty aftertaste.

Other options on the protein list include salmon, mahi, roast beef and tofu steak, any of which are available in bento boxes, sandwiches, noodles or salads. And though the meals are cooked rather quickly, the brain requires some slack for mixing and matching the other components to them before casting your final order. We took our time doing so over house-brewed barley tea, which was soothing and tasted a little like Cheerios.

A majority of seating is on an outdoor patio that occupies the V-shaped corner where San Diego Avenue and Congress Street meet. Inclement weather prompted us to take refuge on a high-top table inside the unadorned dining room, where the open kitchen allows you to watch the cooks in action. Both staff and owner are exceptionally friendly and stand ready to guide you through the menu options.

Also in sight is a glass cake stand housing jumbo cashew cookies with chocolate chunks and fresh ginger inside them. At last, a confection that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Who knew that ginger and chocolate get along so well? The cookies called for a second round of barley tea.

The menu at BentoWich will soon expand to include several non-traditional sushi rolls incorporating steak and crafty sauces. But regardless, the eatery remains a novel addition to Old Town, and the only place in San Diego where bento boxes and their myriad deconstructions receive top billing.

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