I'm a huge fan of bento boxes, and perhaps a huger fan of Supernatural Sandwiches, the seafood specialist in Miramar I consider my favorite sandwich spot in the county. Imagine my excitement when I learned Supernatural executive chef Craig Jimenez is behind a new fast casual spot in Pacific Beach that's caught a lot of buzz since debuting this summer, Nom Nom Bento.
4680 Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach
(No longer in business.)
The history of the bento box goes back something like 800 years, and today has mostly come to be associated with black, lacquered trays partitioned to hold different components of a fairly balanced meal. Typically, that means rice, salad, some kind of protein, cooked vegetable, and maybe a couple pieces of sushi.
Nom Nom Bento doesn't use partitioned boxes, instead serving dishes packed together in a compostable cardboard bowl. Nom Nom's bentos revolve around the choice of five proteins inspired by various Asian cuisines: Singapore style rotisserie chicken, Korean bulgogi beef, Japanese chashu pork belly, Vietnamese garlic and lemongrass shrimp, and an "aromatic" crispy tofu for vegetarians.
Customers may build a meal from scratch, selecting a protein and drawing from a healthy list of starchy (or leafy) bases, vegetables, and sauces. You may opt for the likes of rice made with chicken broth, rice noodles, or roasted sweet potatoes, for example. And you can add things like garlic peanuts, pickles, daikon radish and carrots, kim chee, and avocado. Sauces include ginger shallot soy, a house sriracha, and fish sauce vinaigrette.
My "build your own" instincts don't always yield the best results, so I chose to start with one of four "signature bentos," ranging in price from $9 to $12. The 9-dollar shibuya pork belly bento is served with toasted sesame sauce and comes standard with a furikake seasoned egg cooked onsen style — effectively between a hard and soft boil. Every bento dish here comes with sautéed green beans and cabbage, and for an extra buck or so I added a helping of sesame wilted spinach to triple down on greens.
Each item tasted great. Three pieces of pork belly were sliced thin, eating like mild, spirals of bacon that took well to the toasted sesame sauce, itself sort of an oily tahini. The fresh vegetables were well cooked. Wilted spinach kept my love of sesame going, and I even enjoyed the garlicky seared green beans, not usually a favorite. Nothing in my bowl skimped on flavor, other than maybe the cabbage garnish.
Most interesting may be the base used in this bento: mashed edamame. I've never encountered this before, and let's just say that now I know what I've been missing. With a consistency closer to hummus than mashed potatoes, the garlicky mashed soybeans were served warm and showed a butter-like richness. Amid what was a very enjoyable lunch, this stuff alone was worth the drive into PB.
I took my bento box a block west to the beach and devoured it, trying each part of the dish individually, in pairs, and all mixed together. Bold flavor met me with each bite, and though every component seemed light on its own, the meal proved filling as a whole. Delicious, affordable, and satisfying: it's worthy of at least three noms.