It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there. I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation. It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea. (Not all in the same meal, though. My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)
It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando. I have already been living here for five years. On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life. We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all. The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.
It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park. My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them. Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces. The food is always good, and the price is right. You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want. You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.
Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes. You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein. I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers. I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.
But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much. (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.) At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice. Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice. I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice. I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl. The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony. Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.
Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit. Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.
And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
My wife is usually drawn to their sushi. She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu. On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing. She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago. I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).
They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll. This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce. Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it! It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time. There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.
It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation. I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for. That’s the highest praise of all.