In 2019, I first met Chef Yusuke Motozawa through his Powered by Rice HTX concept via his famous souffle pancakes. Chef Motozawa is a Japanese-born chef who is extremely proud of his culture and wishes to share more authentic Japanese cuisine with the Houston food scene. Due to the pandemic, Powered by Rice HTX faced a challenge to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of dining. We spoke to him about his newest concepts: Hako Bento and Sando Gang.
What is Hako Bento?
Hako Bento is Houston-based bento box cloud kitchen concept serving over 200 food combinations. Hako Bento is a joint venture between Naoki Yoshida of Shun Japanese Kitchen and Yusuke Motozawa of Powered by Rice. Together, they came up with the simple and clean name Hako Bento. “Hako” means “box” in Japanese and bentos come in a box. They started brainstorming the concept in May 2020 and officially launched November 2020. The boxes are made in Osaka, Japan and are hand-stamped with gold leaf.
What is a bento box?
In Japan, bento boxes are a common and convenient type of lunch boxes. Bento boxes are the primary way to carry food from one place to another. There are many types, such as the social media darling character bento (kyaraben), the beloved convenient store (combini) bento, and the unique ekiben. The most popular image of a bento is the chara-ben, a type of bento popular with young children. In a chara-ben, food is decorated and arranged into famous characters to make it more appealing for young children to eat. While those bento boxes are eye-catching and get a lot of attention, bento boxes can be found in anyone’s bag, from students to salarymen to retirees hiking up a mountain.
What inspired Hako Bento?
Hako Bento took inspiration from ekiben. An ekiben is a boxed meal sold at train stations all over Japan. These bento often have sleek packaging design and feature many local cuisines. “Eating an ekiben on the train is a must-do when traveling in Japan. They are popular because it’s one of those things that completes the scenery when you’re traveling,” said Chef Motozawa.
The start of Hako Bento stemmed from the pandemic. Originally, Powered by Rice HTX was a private dinner concept, but with the dine-in restrictions, he had to come up with a safer way to serve customers. “Delivery services have become commonplace enough that we can operate this kind of business,” said Chef Motozawa, “The systematic approach to the hospitality business had to change from storefront to online.”
What kind of menu items can customers look forward to?
The Hako Bento box consists of 4 components: rice, salad, fried items, and meat. Overall, over 200 meal combinations are possible. They decided to make the bento customizable in order for the customer to have more freedom and avoid being stuck with the same old combinations.
When Chef Motozawa moved from Japan to the U.S. at age 14, he couldn’t find classic Japanese comfort and street foods such as hamburger steak, takoyaki, and cucumber salad. Nobody in Houston was making them. Chef Motozawa designed the menu to replicate his childhood memories of Japanese food. There are also more common Japanese foods on the menu to suit the Houston market.
Chef Motozawa recommends trying the hamburger steak. It’s one of those common Japanese foods that just haven’t made it over to America. Hako Bento is proud of their hamburg steak because of how moist and flavorful it is. You have to take a bite of it to see what he’s talking about! “The takoyaki is also very special as it’s made fresh on-site.” said Chef Motozawa. Everything on the menu, from the sauces to garnishes, is made in-house.
Chef Motozawa encourages everyone to mix and match their orders. “Once you try one, try stepping out of your comfort zone and keep trying new things!”
Besides bento boxes, Hako Bento also sells meal prep entrees and sides. The meal prep items have a lower price point and will stay good in the refrigerator for several days. Hako Bento packs their food in microwave safe containers for convenience. Nutrition facts are available on their website.
What’s the Golden Ticket?
Every 100th order will receive a golden ticket! With a golden ticket, the ticket holder can redeem it for a free bento. The idea originated from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In addition to the food, they wanted to give people something else to be excited about and make people smile.
How to get a Hako Bento?
Hako Bento is currently open Mondays-Thursdays for lunch. Place orders through their website and pick up boxes from Shun Japanese Kitchen. They’re also on third-party delivery services: UberEats, DoorDash, GrubHub, and will soon be on Chowbus.
Introducing another new concept from Chef Motozawa, say hello to Sando Gang. Sando is short for sandwich in Japanese. They are popular because they are portable, convenient, and tasty.
Sando Gang will make its debut pop-up this weekend on December 13, 2020 at Ramen Bar Ichi. They will be selling three types of Japanese-style sandwiches: spicy chicken karaage, teri mayo chicken karaage, and wagyu katsu sando. There will also be a wagyu katsu curry. The wagyu items are only available for dine-in.
I got a sneak peek of what’s to come on the weekend! You won’t want to miss the pop-up! These sandwiches are packed full of flavor. You can follow Sando Gang on Instagram.