We've been making a concerted effort to eat a little better lately. Not completely, obviously, because I could never give up bacon or cheese and it would cripple my hobby (this blog). Still, we're always on the hunt for healthy yet tasty options. The roommate had seen one of her co-workers at her old job bring in the Zen Salad from Zen Bento's downtown location on a number of occasions and thought it looked good and, now that we basically live about three blocks from the State Street location in Eagle, it's been much on her mind lately. I myself have a weakness for Asian food, and even food that's just Asian-inspired as I suspected the case would be here. So last Tuesday when I got home from work and she suggested Zen Bento, I put forth no objection.
After securing half-priced Happy Meals for the kids, we went to pick up our grown-up version. My roommate is such a professional food sensualist that she has usually studied a menu and knows what she wants from a place long before she actually makes it there, and she wanted the aforementioned Zen Salad. Me, I figured I'd go with one of the standard bento bowls that make up the majority of their menu. Basically you get a pile of white rice (you can substitute brown rice, noodles or three times the normal amount of veggies), steamed vegetables, and the protein and sauce of your choice. On the protein side, we have chicken, beef, salmon, tofu and ahi tuna, or you can just get a completely vegetarian bowl. There are six sauces to choose from, ranging from a light and mild teriyaki to a spicy chili-garlic sauce that they recommend as an accent but also say is very good on its own. I went with the ahi tuna (it's very difficult for me to pass up sushi-grade tuna) and the Zen sauce, their medium-hot sweet chili sauce. While I was waiting, I noticed the cooler to the right of the counter, and more specifically I noticed the sushi in it. Now it isn't much different than what you'd get at one of the better grocery stores, but the inari (sushi rice in a fried soybean curd pouch) was looking good, so I tacked on a package of inari and various California roll-style sushi to my order. When everything was bagged and ready to go, I grabbed a selection of plastic flatware, napkins, and those horrible disposable chopsticks that come in one piece which never breaks apart correctly, and we all headed down the street to the park to eat (this was a bad idea in retrospect since though it was sunny and warm enough, it was also VERY windy, and during the course of the meal several things just flew away).
|California Rolls and Inari|
Even though it probably would have been better to do it the other way around, I was seriously craving sushi and dug into it straight away. The California Roll was a standard but good example of its type, and it allowed me a method for getting wasabi into my system, which is always nice. The Inari, which is what I was really craving, was even better. A little crispy and sweet on the outside, a little fluffy and vinegary inside.
Let's get the Zen Salad out of the way, shall we? I only say that because despite the fact that the roommate and I have been to Zen Bento three times, the Zen Salad is the only thing she has ever gotten from them. Which is to say, she's ordered it every time we've gone there. I understand it, it's really good and all, but when I find a new place I dig I have to try everything that interests me before settling on a definitive favorite. This particular dish, much like the bento bowls and somewhat atypical for a salad, starts with a big pile of rice. To that is added a protein or veggie pile of your choice (chicken in this case), cabbage, sesame seeds and their ginger soy dressing, which is popular enough that they sell it on its own. Anyway, after ordering it three times it should be obvious that she loves it, but I dug it as well. A salad with rice as its main component is just fine with me, and it tastes terrific.
|Ahi Bento with white rice and Zen sauce|
My first bento bowl from Zen Bento was a thing of beauty. Just look at the colors! The veggies were more or less perfectly steam-cooked, erring perhaps a little on the side of crispness. The chili sauce, delicious though it was, was also the hottest one I'd ever tried, a little too much for my own tastes. It ended up overwhelming the flavor of the fish and the veggies a little bit, but once I got down to the rice and all the sauce started getting absorbed, it became much more tolerable and even more delicious. Still, I knew I wouldn't go with that sauce again unless I get the chicken bowl or the beef bowl in the future. The only other thing I would have to say is that the proportions are a bit off from what I would prefer. I didn't count the tuna slices at the time, but I count at least nine in that picture, which is not an inconsiderable amount. And there was a LOT of rice. However, only a handful of veggies. Still, it's a small gripe, and the food was good enough that I wanted to return the next day.
|Ahi Bento with noodles and Ginger-Soy sauce|
It actually ended up being several days before we returned. I don't remember whose idea it was that time, but we ended up back at the apartment, as I had gone right before they closed. On my previous visit, they had been advertising a "Hawaiian Bento" for $5.50, and I was intrigued. However, when I called to order, I was told that it was too close to closing for them to do one. Fine, I could understand that. I asked for a Beef Bento instead, but the woman on the other end of the phone advised that they were out of beef for the night, and salmon as well. I asked how the tofu was prepared, as I love it fried, but she told me that wasn't the case. So, I ended up ordering the Ahi Bento again but this time I switched it up by getting noodles instead of rice and the Ginger-Soy sauce that had been so good on the roommate's salad.
|A few pieces of fish and surprisingly few vegetables later...|
I have to admit that I was a tiny bit disappointed when I got home. The bowl wasn't as full as the last time, and had even less veggies in both amount and diversity. This time though, I DID count the pieces of tuna, and came up with eleven. That and my love of noodles and how just plain great that sauce was still made for a satisfying dish. Zen Bento does have a few options that I might take advantage of next time. You can choose to omit the rice altogether in favor of three times the veggies as I described before, but I just have to have my rice and/or noodles. One of the side items you can get is extra veggies for another $1.39, which I might just have to do. It would put the price of this bowl of food over ten dollars, but as long as I'm satisfied, it's worth it. Plus they're close to home and relatively healthy, so what's a little bit of extra money?
The last time we went ended up being on Monday, six days after our original visit. I got a text from the roommate while I was still at work warning me that she was craving that salad again. I had to ask to confirm since we had just been at a giant salad bar the night before, but when she told me it was the Zen Bento one, I seized the chance to finally try the Hawaiian Bento. Satisfying my curiosity was nice, but I didn't dig the meal as much as I had hoped I would. Let's get my least favorite thing out of the way. The macaroni salad only really resembles its Hawaiian counterpart in terms of its excessive creaminess. I've never had one that heavily seasoned, or one with peas. I picked the peas out (can't stand them, I like them even less than I like pineapple), but even then it didn't remind me much of Hawaiian style mac salad at all. Still, as a macaroni salad in general it wasn't bad, so I really can't complain too much. The chicken was thigh meat if I recall, darker and fattier than they usually use. The real surprise though was the teriyaki sauce. It was much lighter in both color and flavor than I'm used to, exhibiting none of the overwhelming sweetness, saltiness and thickness that a lot of teriyakis do. I ended up dumping the chicken on top of the rice and covering the whole mess in the teriyaki sauce, and I dug it a lot more that way.
In the end, here's what I know: Zen Bento has fresh, tasty, and relatively healthy "fast" food. Their sauces are all good so far as I know, but trust them on the heat levels. They don't skimp on the proteins, but you may end up wanting more veggies. I would go so far as to say they're my current favorite restaurant that doesn't serve pork.
Final Grade: B+
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