Maybe it's memories of the preponderance of Chinese-Japanese fusion places that dotted stretches of my childhood, but I've always had an affection for the often trashy comfort of bento boxes. You know the ones I'm talking about, with one hollow given over to iceberg lettuce in creamy "ginger" dressing and another that sits empty except for a "dessert" of a single, not-quite-ripe orange segment. The protein is probably teriyaki of some sort, served with a few rounds of unnaturally colored California roll. In combination, those elements have the ability to set fire to my dopamine receptors like no drug can.
And my feelings are just as powerful for authentic Japanese bentos, more likely to center around a hamachi kama, perhaps, than steak in sugar sauce, but no less lovable with its chunks of cured salmon belly and passels of pickles. Then, of course, there's the entire sub-genre of oekakiben, the kawaii picture bentos that fill my Instagram feed... I'd better stop before I go all Bubba Gump on you.
But it's been a struggle to find a bento in Houston that truly spoke to me. Last week, a box of katsu curry at Soma Sushi did just that. I'm always prepared for a bento to be a sizable meal, perhaps enough for two installments, but Soma surprised me when my server brought good-sized bowls of both miso soup and salad in advance of the box. The soup wasn't so different from the average, if a bit more intensely flavored, but the Soma Salad was many rungs above the iceberg in slightly ginger-flavored cream. Did I enjoy it more? I'm still not sure, but I certainly appreciated the mixed greens in ginger-miso dressing (a grown-up version of my childhood fave) with red-onion-wine jam and cashews.
I've often stated the admittedly nerdy opinion (as if it's not nerdy enough to have an opinion on the matter at all) that Japanese curry is the pinnacle of the country's western-style yōshoku cuisine, given its journey from India to England, then back to Asia again in an entirely new land. So gloriously complicated.
OK, I also love it because it's basically just roux-thickened gravy with curry powder in it. At Soma, the curry is slightly hotter than usual (a good thing) and speckled with peas and tiny cubes of carrot. It's spooned over a juicy katsu-fried pork chop. My sole wish would have been for more sauce, enough to soak into the rice below.
But I was able to occupy myself with the other components: nicely constructed slices of spicy tuna roll, sesame-soaked seaweed salad, lightly sweet agedashi tofu covered with tendrils of bonito flakes in perpetual motion, and fukujinzuke, the candy-red pickles typically served with curry. But the nicest surprise of all was the replacement for the sad orange segment. A thick vanilla crème brûlée with an ethereally glassy top was not a bad sub at all. If only the dessert had been orange flavored...