Pan-Asian bento boxes in shoebox-sized space

March 18, 2011 9:45:56 AM PDT
The tradition of the bento box is rooted in Japan. But one chef in town is taking liberties with what he puts into it.

The primary flavors are still Asian, but the Hungry Hound says there's plenty of room for korean, Thai and Chinese flavors as well.

The bento box is great if you're an obsessive-compulsive eater. Or, if you just like to keep all of the elements on your plate from touching, because the rectangular box is a perfect means to serve several types of dishes, each in their own compartment.

Leave it to a Greek guy to figure out how to take this Japanese tradition and broaden its potential.

The fact a guy named Spiros can turn out inspired Asian food says volumes about what cooks can accomplish these days. It's due in part to real estate.

After all, Rick Spiros is primarily a caterer, but when he decided to open up the front half of his shoebox-sized space in Bucktown and call it The Bento Box, offering just a handful of options for lunch and dinner, it made perfect sense.

"I wanted to do a play on the bento box because I thought that people would respond to the compartmentalized. Everything in the box all goes together, it all makes sense," said Spiros.

But it's also because he maintains discipline, not overreaching. His beef bulgogi is tender, sauteed and then plated along with crunchy cucumbers with purple cabbage, as well as kimchi, Korea's beloved, fermented cabbage.

"I wanted to expose people to it and that it's spicy, it's different, it's interesting. I think more people should know about it, it's healthy, you know, it's vegetables," Spiros said.

Spiros also dabbles with Thai flavors: first, embedding a coconut milk-based curry with cubes of sweet potatoes, then topping it with sauteed pork belly. A little chili jam offers sweet-heat, while a cilantro-lime potato salad provides an herbal note to the starch.

There's also usually one soup on the menu -- in this case, beef brisket and rice noodles in a mild chile broth. Spiros says his knowledge of Asian food comes mostly from books and talking with other chefs. His use of fresh ingredients, however, is proving to be the difference between his shop and so many others.

"I prep everyday and I just try to keep it fresh. And the one thing that I've been getting back feedback-wise is that's the one thing people say is 'wow it's so fresh,'" he said.

The bento box is open from Wednesday to Saturday, and serves both lunch and dinner. Spiros also maintains his catering business from the same location.

The Bento Box
2246 W Armitage Ave