Taiwanese pop songs bounce off the high walls of Bento Cafe (5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, 770-300-9798, www.bentocafe.com). Colorful orange signage and manga-inspired illustrations pepper the space, which feels more like a cool converted warehouse in the heart of a major city than a restaurant in a Norcross strip mall.
An energetic gaggle of young girls in spiky heels, smart winter coats and carefully manipulated scarves burst in and make their way through the restaurant to one of the kitchen-grade stainless steel tables. Without so much as a glance at the menu, they rattle off a list of dishes to a young waitress sporting a fashionable blunt haircut and colorful sneakers. When the food arrives, the girls' chatter comes to an abrupt halt and they pounce with wide, hungry eyes.
In a time when "street food" is a marketing term, Bento is lauded by many Yelpers of Taiwanese descent for its hard-to-find home-style dishes and real-deal street snacks. Nibble-friendly appetizers such as pickled cabbage, chewy braised bean curd coated in thick sauce, and sweet Taiwanese sausage start off the meal. A platter of pillowy dumplings arrives with silky exteriors and juicy pork filling tinged with green onion. Fried fritters abound, from fish balls to chicken nuggets coated in a spicy and smoky powder (the correct plate-to-mouth technique involves impaling them with a wooden skewer). The snack food section holds some intimidating items but it's worth the plunge. Take, for instance, the ba wan – a gelatinous dumpling that looks like a jellyfish floating in a pool of orange-red sweet and sour sauce. But the dumpling's thick, translucent skin is just the vehicle for the hefty main attraction: a mixture of chewy vegetables and salty, minced pork.
The popular Bento chop is best ordered fried (versus grilled) so you can experience the kitchen's masterful frying techniques. The pork chop is flattened and breaded – flattening allows the meat to curl when it's fried. The result looks like a crackly crisp blooming flower made of juicy pork. The chop is offered solo, or as the centerpiece of a hulking round dinner plate, filled to the brim with steamed rice covered in a pork sauce made from chopped fatty pork stewed with soy sauce, two daily vegetables, and a spot of chopped pickled mustard greens.
Comfort food in the form of a slightly spicy chicken curry served with steamed rice comes chock-full of tender light and dark chicken meat, and huge chunks of carrots and potatoes. Large bowls of beef noodle soup feature a rich, practically oil-free broth with just the right amount of five-spice, so the other flavors get their turn in the spotlight. Chunks of tender beef tangle with bok choy, green onions and a noodle of your choice. Noodles stir-fried with shredded pork and vegetables sound promising, but fresh egg noodles don't save this dish from resembling the lackluster lo mein you get in a mall food court.
Bento does a commendable job at making a wide assortment of bubble teas with freshly made tapioca pearls, but the Hand Shake Tea is what grabbed my attention. Jasmine green tea, ice, milk and sugar are combined in a plastic cup, sealed with an airtight sticker and vigorously shaken to mix as it's delivered to your table. You access the creamy, flowery nectar by puncturing the seal with an angled straw; the pop of the lid evokes the same childlike delight as a sheet of bubble wrap (with sweeter results).
As one Yelper said, "Bento makes me miss Taiwan." For those of us who have no point of comparison, Bento's fun food, loft-chic atmosphere, and youthful energy is the next best thing to getting on a plane.
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