Bento Café – Quick, Inexpensive, and Surprisingly Good

Bento Café is a quick-serve Pan-Asian eatery with several locations throughout Florida.  Their concept is to prepare authentic Asian food in a way that is fast and efficient, but still tasty.  We were recently invited out to try a few of their newer menu items at their St. John’s Town Center location.  That location (known as Bento Blue thanks to it’s cool blue-hued décor) is one of two here in Jacksonville.  And their prime Town Center location seems to be working pretty well for them.  While we were there for dinner, we noticed a steady stream of satisfied customers and the place was lively and busy.  The atmosphere is sleek, clean, and modern.  And despite how many people were there, the wait time for food was not long at all.

Bento - Interior

Bento – Interior


The Bento Café menu focuses on quick serve Asian food, including bento boxes, rice and noodles, sushi, and also boba tea.  We were eager to try out some of their new healthier options, so we knew immediately that we wanted one of their Kawaii rolls.  We were excited to find out that we were there during Sushi Happy Hour!  Here’s how it works…Monday through Friday from 4pm until 6pm, if you buy two sushi rolls you get a third one for free.  It’s a good deal and a great way to try out some new sushi rolls without breaking the bank.  So, we took advantage of it and also ordered a Kentucky Roll and a Strawberry Roll.  Along with our sushi, we got a Szechuan Chicken Bento Box.  And since it is my personal mission in life to find a boba tea that I enjoy, I just had to try their Almond Joy Boba Tea…it sounded so dreamy.

Bento - Kawaii Roll Menu

Bento – Kawaii Roll Menu

We placed our order and had a seat.  My Almond Joy Boba Tea ($4 for a medium) was ready first.  It was a delicious mix of chocolate and almond.  It was creamy, sweet, and the boba was just the right texture.  Not long after, our food was brought over to our table.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that the service was not only quick, but super friendly as well.  Despite it being a quick-serve order-at-the-counter place, all the servers were very attentive…and not just with us, but with everyone.  There was at least one person making the rounds from table to table checking on diners the entire time that we were there.  You don’t see that in a lot of higher-end restaurants, so it was refreshing to see that kind of attentiveness in a fast casual dining spot.

We started off with our Szechuan Chicken Bento Box ($8.75) and unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment.  The chicken and veggies were nothing special.  They lacked flavor and just were not that great.  And the sauce was really thick and goopy with an overly sweet taste and no spice at all.  The noodles in the bento box were dry and chewy and could have used a bit more sauce.  The rice was just ok.  But the Szechuan garlic string beans were pretty tasty and had a good flavor with a the right amount of heat.  And the ginger dressing on the salad was some of the best I’ve ever had.  It had a deeper flavor, was more gingery, and was not overly sweet like some other Asian ginger dressings I’ve had.

Bento - Szechuan Chicken Bento Box

Bento – Szechuan Chicken Bento Box

Although the bento box was kind of a letdown, we were really impressed with the sushi.  Even though it came out quickly, it was still beautifully plated and tasted great.  I did not expect that.  It was very appealing to look at and was just as tasty once we dug in.  The Kentucky Roll ($7) was simple but delicious.  The bite of crispy tempura chicken in the middle gave it nice texture and crunch.  The rice was cooked well and had good flavor.  I only wished there had been a little more heat to the sauce drizzled on top.  A hot-sauce type of sauce would have added a little spiciness and would have been fitting given the fried chicken inside.

Bento - Kentucky Roll

Bento – Kentucky Roll

The Strawberry Roll ($9) was also presented beautifully and was really yummy.  The shredded imitation krab inside was nice and spicy.  And I liked that it was not a huge chunk like you would typically get.  The avocado and strawberry slices on top offset the spiciness of the krab nicely and gave each bite a cool, refreshing taste.  The strawberry added a little sweetness and fruitiness, which was unique and tasty.  The tempura flakes layered inside the roll were also really fun.  They gave each bite an unexpected crunch and a great textural contrast.

Bento - Strawberry Roll

Bento – Strawberry Roll

My favorite sushi roll was the Neo Tokyo Kawaii Roll ($7.50).  It is one of their newer, lighter menu offerings and I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.  The idea behind the Kawaii Sushi Rolls is that the rice is replaced with lettuce and the whole thing is wrapped up inside thin rice paper, making the roll lighter and a bit healthier.  I loved it.  The crisp lettuce was a great contrast to the soft tuna.  And it was a good blank canvas for the other ingredients in the roll.  It didn’t overpower the avocado and cucumber the way vinegary sushi rice sometimes can with those milder ingredients.  That being said, there may have been a tad too much lettuce in our roll.  The roll was so stuffed with lettuce that it was hard to eat the piece in one bite, as is ideal with sushi.  It was still good, just a little hard to eat.

Bento - Neo Tokyo Kawaii Roll

Bento – Neo Tokyo Kawaii Roll

Overall, we were happy with our Bento Café experience.  The service was surprisingly great, the prices are very reasonable, and the ingredients were fresh and vibrant.  We were also really impressed with how extensive the menu is.  There are tons of options and lots of different ways to customize your meal (especially when it comes to their bento boxes, bowls, and salads).  And that doesn’t even take into account the 80+ items on their sushi menu.  As far as a concept, Bento Café is a good one – making sushi and other Asian foods quickly accessible to a wide range of people.  For sushi newbies, it can be intimidating to interpret and choose from all the different ingredients and styles of sushi.  But Bento Café lays out their menu in an easy-to-understand way and makes it a lot easier to choose.  And with prices like theirs, it is a good way to try out new things.  There were some misses (the dry noodles and the goopy, bland Szechuan sauce), but overall the food was really good.  My Almond Joy Boba Tea was just heavenly and the sushi was a surprise superstar.  We can’t wait to go back and try some more!

NoteFrom time to time we’re invited out to try a restaurant or to taste new menu items. This meal is usually comped, as this one was. We’re under no obligation to write a positive review or any review at all when we’re invited out to try a place.  Every review you see on our site will be an honest review of the place whether or not the restaurant provided us with the meal at their cost.

Bento - Neo Tokyo Kawaii Roll and Strawberry Roll

Bento – Neo Tokyo Kawaii Roll and Strawberry Roll

 


For this review we welcome a member of our own JRR family:  Rhonda Kovar is a former call center manager turned stay-at-home mom.  She grew up in the heart of North Carolina and moved to Florida after getting hitched in 2002.  She is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University and a lover of all things crafty, musical, or edible.  Rhonda loves finding new and delicious ways to turn her two tiny picky eaters into future foodies.  You can follow her on Instagram.

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