Feb. 20 2015 05:33 PM

Bento Boxes and tasty tofu at Kearny Mesa Japanese joint

Bento with salmon sashimi
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Dinner is the glory meal. From chef-driven restaurants to the family table of your childhood, when you think of a great meal, it's dinner you probably picture. Breakfast? It's "the most important meal of the day," right? But lunch? Itís the forgotten meal: utilitarian. I submit that lunch deserves better. And thus began my search for the best lunch in town.

My quest began at Wa Dining Okan (3860 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa). Perhaps more than any other culture, Japan has made lunch an art form, starting with the "bento." The word can refer to the traditional home-packed meal of rice, fish or meat and pickled vegetables, or it can refer to the box in which that lunch is traditionally served. Where the original bento "box" was likely a small bag or leather pouch, by the late 16th century, bentos were already elaborate—and quite beautiful—lacquered boxes with separate sections for each component. And where early bento meals were just cooked and dried rice, it was not long before artistry entered that part of the equation, too.

At Okan, the bento lunches come on lacquered trays with separate dishes rather than traditional boxes. Most lunch options come with a protein dish, rice (brown or white), a miso soup, two side dishes and assorted pickles. The side dishes change daily, ranging from beef with broccoli to fresh bamboo shoots to pumpkin salad.

All the options I've tried have been excellent. Perhaps the best was the braised pork belly with boiled egg. Braised in its own fat with soy and sugar, the meat was a perfectly balanced blend of savory, sweet and umami flavors. Garnishes of parboiled asparagus pieces and a swipe of miso, along with a bit of the braising liquid, completed the dish.

While Okan is definitely not a sushi joint, the salmon sashimi is another dependably great choice. The fish quality was first-rate, the knife work skillful and the portion generous. Better still were the fried oysters. Breaded with panko breadcrumbs, they were light and crispy on the outside, creamy and sexy on the inside.

A fantastic non-bento option at Okan is the cold soba noodles. Served on a basket-tray, garnished simply with nori seaweed strips, chopped scallions and a dipping sauce, it's delicious and satisfying. Perhaps the best single dish at Okan is the unattractively named "Cold Tofu." It's far, far better than it sounds. The tofu is house-made and very nearly sweet, with a luxurious, custard-like texture. It's garnished with ginger paste, chopped scallions and a nest of bonito flakes; a dash of soy sauce brings the whole thing together. It's a dish not to be missed.

The word "okan" translates in English to "mother," and you can feel the presence of a mother here. The somewhat archaic mythology of bento involves a mother at home sending her kids to school or husband to work with a bento box that communicates her love to them during the day. Women are now 49.5 percent of Japan's labor force, and bentos are more often store-bought than homemade. But, at Okon, it wasn't difficult to imagine a mom's heartfelt touch on every tray.

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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