If there's one thing the coronavirus pandemic has taught us, it's that humans will scramble to grab hold of the one small slice of the world they can control. It's why our closets and garages have been picked clean of their clutter and gardening aisles are regularly wiped out of merchandise. As the weeks in isolation wear on, we attempt to add beauty to spaces that may begin to feel monotonous.
There are few dishes that match this moment's craving for organization and artful arrangement more than the bento box. The Japanese-inspired meals are not only orderly, with different foods of eye-popping colors neatly compartmentalized, they're also downright adorable.
Yakuza's bento boxes ($17) may be neat and attractive, but the long-running izakaya's new item wasn't necessarily added to the menu as a way of bringing culinary zen to customers during a global health crisis. It was simply one way to quickly shift to easily transportable orders following the statewide shutdown of dine-in service in mid-March.
"This is something that our chef thought could be a good addition to the menu given the current state of affairs," says owner Dayna McErlean. "I think it's also a nice sampling of the variety of things that we offer."
That assortment of delights—fried and raw, meaty and light—fulfills another criterion of the bento box: balance. The main component is a sushified take on one of summer's greatest grilling pairs: salmon and asparagus. Here, they are firmly spooled into a stout roll with creamy chunks of avocado and refreshing blades of cucumber.
The sides then zigzag across the spectrums of both flavor and texture. A pile of bite-sized karaage—chicken thighs in a puffy, tawny-colored crust—are fleshy and indulgent. The vibrantly green tangle of seaweed swings sharply away from the bird's fried bliss, yet its refreshing crunch doesn't make it feel like you're practicing self-discipline by eating a vitamin-dense salad.
Beyond all that, there is still a cup of miso soup with a hefty beef flavor to consume, which really makes this bento box more of a two-meal job or a shared effort. The spread is more than enough to fuel both you and whomever you're quarantined with through several rounds of Sapporo, and at that point you won't care that you've just plowed through what's maybe the cutest meal around.
The crux of the roll is buttery Skuna Bay salmon, raised in the natural ocean environment off the coast of Vancouver Island and, not unlike a pre-owned car, must go through a vigorous 14-point inspection to ensure quality before they're sent to market. Slices of fish are wrapped in soft Calrose rice along with grilled asparagus, diced green onion and chopped cucumber, which are then topped with chile oil.
Firm hunks of chicken thigh are marinated in garlic, ginger and mirin—a Japanese sweet cooking rice wine—and then dredged in a mixture of potato and corn flour. The poultry comes resting on a bed of Calrose rice.
THE SEAWEED SALAD
Yakuza uses wakame, an edible seaweed cultivated in Japan and Korea for centuries. Think of it as the superfood of the ocean: The green strands are packed with minerals, like calcium, iodine and iron, and are essentially a little library of vitamins: A, C, E, K and the family of B vitamins.
Yakuza's red miso means the bean paste has gone through a longer fermentation, yielding a robust flavor. It's incorporated in a vegetable dashi, or stock, along with tofu and green onions.
ORDER: Yakuza, 5411 NE 30th Ave., 503-450-0893, yakuzalounge.com. Takeout and delivery 4-9 pm daily.