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The Lunchmaker

Meals on a Stick: Bentos skewers chicken and other grilled goodies.

Bentos California aims to import the essence of Hawaiian soul food to Los Gatos

By Todd S. Inoue

In Hawaii, bentos ("box lunches") are a part of the culinary landscape--available through the ice cream man, the lunch truck or at roadside stands. The entire reservoir of fatty grub is enclosed in a white Styrofoam box, a rubber band securing the chopsticks and napkin.

Bentos California's attempt at capturing the essence of Hawaiian soul food comes up short of authentic--islanders would bus' laugh at the concept--but the snappy retort to "you can't forget what you know" is "what you don't know, you don't miss."

So it goes at Bentos California. Choose from a long list of grilled meats, pick a sauce, and your order appears in 10 minutes or less. The meat lies on a bed of lightly salted rice with a cabbage salad riding shotgun. A plastic fork peeks out (where's the chopsticks?) and the sauce of choice appears in a side cup.

Meats include salmon, trout, catfish, lamb, shrimp, beef, chicken and, for veggies, a good-looking grilled vegetable skewer. The sauces kick the flavor into overdrive: curry peanut, spicy soy, tropical fruit, Thai red chile and garlic, orange chile, pineapple teriyaki. Don't dump the whole sauce on the meat; a quarter buys a side of sauce, making experimentation fun and cheap.

I sampled the chicken ($5.95) with the Thai red chile sauce and the curry peanut sauce. The chicken--a thick roll of white meat on a skewer--embodied everything I seek in fowl: juicy, pliant, grilled, yum. My partner landed the trout. It was trout--plain, white, inoffensive, so what. The tropical sauce was ho-hum. Do like Yogi Berra; stick with whoever's throwing the most heat. Don't worry, the heat is subtle; I found myself double-dipping the meat like a McNugget.

I batted about the merits of Hawaii and bento with a fellow diner. "What did you think?" she asked. Kinda fancy, I said. "This is Los Gatos," she responded. No bulai, my friend.

Bentos California is located at 151 N. Santa Cruz Ave. #A, Los Gatos, 408/395-8133. Mon., 11am-8:30pm; Tue.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 3-9pm.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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