Looks like bento. But what's up with the tempura clumps? Chicken Teriyaki Combo Plate. Riki Sushi.
3930 30th Street, San Diego
One of many restaurant options on this stretch.
I don't know why there's no real American equivalent to bento. I suppose the closest thing we have is the lunch combo — a sandwich, bag of chips, maybe a pasta salad if you're lucky. Either way it doesn't seem to share the exquisite balance of the Japanese bento box.
In the US at least, a bento gives you a choice of protein, a scoop of rice, green salad, vegetables (most likely tempura) and, what the hell, a few pieces of California roll. A classier spot will even give you a proper miso soup starter. Without consulting my nutritionist, I'd say this constitutes one of the more well-rounded lunch options available.
So when I walked into North Park's Riki Sushi for lunch I didn't really have sushi on my mind. While it's apparently [good for the price], I had something cheaper in mind. True to the bento spirit, all of the above was going for eight dollars on the Riki lunch menu.
Sure, they call it a Combo Plate, because I'm sure that markets better south of Aero Drive. But it's definitely bento, served in a segmented box. Still, in the combo plate spirit, I kept it basic with chicken teriyaki, that old stand-by.
The box showed up with a shrimp in my tempura. Most people would consider this a plus. Not me, though — I'm allergic. Still, I'll say good on Riki for offering this little bit extra to their customers. Thank you, and take it back please.
Of course, my server accommodated, and in no time a fresh box showed up at my table, no bottom-feeding parasite to be found. I dug into the tempura without hesitation.
Now, let me be honest. How am I going to review miso soup, California roll, white rice, and green salad? None of these things are ever going to stand out in the context of a lunch special, and I wouldn't expect them to. I simply want them to be present, and good enough to eat without reservation. They were.
But this basically means there are two variable components to this bento to judge it by: the chicken and the tempura vegetables.
I love tempura, especially in ice cream form. But failing that, I'm a fan of broccoli, onion, a big slice of carrot. Sometimes a zucchini is nice, and though I'd rather not have too many pieces of potato or sweet potato, I understand that each tempura veggie order is subject to interpretation, and you never know what's likely to turn up at your table.
I never expected this, though — the Riki tempura is a mixture of shredded carrot, onion, and (I believe) cabbage, dropped into the batter and fried. The result is a whole lot of fried batter with some small bits of indistinguishable vegetable matter mixed in. It might be a good way to force feed junior some vegetables, but I was hoping for some texture, nourishment and flavor. Not a fan.
The chicken, however, surpassed my expectations. It had a smoky char that contrasted nicely with the understated teriyaki, and added a little texture to the flat cutlet. I don't think I've ever recommended teriyaki before in my life, but on a return lunch trip I might just forgo the tempura and imitation crab and double up on this chicken with an eight-dollar teriyaki bowl.