Chef Naoko Bento

“Where is this bento place?” one of my fellow Lunch Clubbers inquired confusedly as we zoomed up SW Jefferson towards the I-405 overpass. ”All I see is a burrito joint. Are we getting on the freeway?” I detected a trace of mistrust. I suspect they thought I was pulling their leg, dragging them on a wild bento goose chase as penance for lunching at my favorite food cart without me the week before when I was out sick.

“I don’t think you’re supposed  to make a right turn in front of the streetcar,” someone else groused.

“Silence, naysayers!” I shouted. “Get tranquil ASAP, we’re going to Chef Naoko’s!”

Portland foodsters in the know have a quiet love affair with Chef Naoko Tamura’s cuisine, and a loyal contingency of bento-ites streams into the cheerful little cafe for lunch Tuesday through Saturday without letup.

It’s not unusual to come across someone in your lunch club, even a serious food lover, who hasn’t yet investigated this unassuming little downtown bento cafe, located on SW Jefferson and SW 12th. But Portland foodsters in the know have a quiet love affair with Chef Naoko Tamura’s cuisine, and a loyal contingency of bento-ites streams into the cheerful little cafe for lunch Tuesday through Saturday without letup.

The cafe is Chef Naoko’s first restaurant venture in the United States; she’s already made quite a name for herself in Tokyo, where’s she’s had a family restaurant and consulting business for over 30 years and has deep family roots in the culinary arts. Her commitment to sourcing only the highest quality local and organic ingredients, well-honed kitchen skills, and sense of food artistry is evident in each exquisite bento box that comes out of the kitchen–you won’t see any sensational kyaraben-style presentations, just beautifully solid offerings like grilled fish in a delicately flavorful house ginger teriyaki sauce, Japanese-style fried shrimp, marinated chicken, or grilled tofu, accompanied by pretty piles of bright green organic greens, house pickle salad, higiki seaweed with barley, brown rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds, and perhaps a quivering cube of fresh tofu topped with a dollop of inky sweet Japanese miso sauce.

Though not as aesthetically dramatic as their supermodel bento brethren, the rice bowls are hearty and delicious, with grilled ground chicken and tofu cakes served atop lightly cooked vegetables and cabbage over steamed rice–an ideal meal when paired with housemade iced tea on a midsummer’s day or traditional Japanese roasted tea on a midwinter’s day.

If you’re lucky enough to get a lunchtime table in the tiny cafe, which is painted in soothing shades of celery and grass green and accented with leafy live plants and fresh produce, you can sit solo at one of the small tables that line the front window and watch eagerly as each black-lacquered bento box is carried through the dining room to its lucky owner, or join friends outside at one of the sidewalk tables that are put out in fair weather and sip an iced roasted barley tea whilst discussing the finer points of streetcar rightaways.

“That was literally, the best bento I have ever had in Portland,” someone said quietly on our way home from Lunch Club. I tried not to look smug, but…I couldn’t help it. It’s good to be in the bento know.

Details

Cuisine: Japanese

Executive Chef: Naoko Tamura

Atmosphere: Small, neat little downtown cafe with a few tables, a small window bar, and a friendly vibe

Outdoor seating: Yes, a couple of sidewalk tables are put out along SW Jefferson in fair weather

Best Seat: A window seat

Noise Level: Normal to Energetic, depending on how full the little café is

Dress Code: Casual

Bring the Kids: Yes

Bathrooms: Right side of the cafe

Parking: Parking is metered on SW Jefferson and surrounding streets Mon-Sat 8am-7pm and Sun 1-7pm

Beer: No

Wine: No

Sake: No

Teetotalers: Organic iced tea, Odwalla, Hot Lips Real Fruit sodas, hot teas

Coffee: No

Tea: Organic Numi teas, Japanese Roasted Tea/Green Tea

Vegetarian Friendly: Yes

Vegan Friendly: Yes

Good for the following occasions: Healthy Lunch, Something Different, Impress Your Foodie Friends, Be Nice to a Vegetarian Day

Catering: Chef Naoko caters corporate events, meetings and events of all sizes, see the website for more information

Reservations: No, and it can get crowded during lunch, so I suggest going early

Take-Out: Yes, call 503.227.4136

Delivery: No

Catering: Chef Naoko caters corporate events, meetings and events of all sizes, see the website for more information