Well, yes. Several local restaurants serve food in bento boxes, including Jun's Japanese restaurant at 76th Street and State Line and Choga Korean Restaurant at 105th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park. But I believe the first venue to add the word bento to its name is the 7-month-old Friends Sushi & Bento Place. Don't worry, the cheery owners of the restaurant, Paul and Lilly Zhu, won't give you a "you're definitely not from here" look whatever that is if you confess to not knowing the difference between a bento box and Benton Boulevard.
In Japan, an o-bento (sometimes spelled obento) is a packaged meal, sort of like the American lunchbox. It can be an actual box-shaped container, with two or three stacked layers, or a lacquered wooden box with separate compartments. Think of it as a prettier version of a TV dinner tray. The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America describes the bento box as a traditional lunch container, holding "four or five dishes, with rice as the mainstay perhaps a couple of shrimp tempura, a little sushi, a little yakitori and some pickles."
At Friends, the bento is available for both lunch and dinner in seven incarnations, including a vegetarian version and an all-sushi affair. I was up for one the night I went to dine at the restaurant with Lorraine and Cynthia. "You don't think of sushi as a neighborhood restaurant," said Lorraine, even though she lives a block away from the multinational dining community on 39th Street known as Restaurant Row.
But sushi, practically a culinary novelty in the Midwest until the 1980s, is now becoming as familiar to local diners as General Tso's chicken and pot stickers. Case in point: A new sushi joint is opening in Brookside later this year, and you can buy prepackaged nigiri and maki at Cosentino's Brookside Market. Another midtown dining hub, Westport, has two venues serving sushi, Matsu and the Fuji Japanese Steakhouse. The latter is owned by John and Lina Tai, who are not only related to Lilly Zhu but also employed her as a waitress for several years. That's how she got the inspiration to open her own sushi shop.
"Japanese food is very popular right now," Lilly told me. Both she and her husband, Paul, are natives of Shanghai, but neither considered opening a Chinese restaurant. Lilly's background is in Japanese cuisine: "My family owned a Japanese noodle shop in Shanghai," she said.
Noodles have their place on the Friends menu. There's sukiyaki, a seafood concoction called "Ocean's Twelve," and a traditional Japanese soup that doesn't even have a name that translates to English it's listed on the menu in Japanese script only.
There was also a menu item that I had never seen offered in any restaurant: "cheese cracker." I had a momentary flashback to the neat square of Velveeta on a saltine that was one of my mother's questionable "healthy snacks" from the 1960s. At Friends, Lilly explained, a cheese cracker is more like crab rangoon. True, it's a cheese puff, but without the illusion of containing "crab" (which I maintain is a mythical ingredient in most local versions of rangoon). That night's appetizer special, a salmon cracker, was definitely filled with salmon, but it didn't look like either a rangoon or a cracker. It looked like a cigarette: a thin, crispy wonton tube filled with steamed salmon. Very tasty.