Think inside the box
Bento boxes are those lovely partitioned lacquered wood meal containers from Japan. I picked one up at a yard sale years ago but had no idea it was meant to carry a light lunch—I thought the beautiful container’s inner shelves were meant for girly doodles like earrings and pots of lip gloss. I had only seen bento boxes without lids. So the little black-lidded box serenely sat on my nightstand until I visited a Japanese website to buy imported snacks and realized my earring caddy should have been filled with cooked rice and bits of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.
A bento box packed with vegetarian treats at Fei’s Café is the lunch of champions. A recent lunch there began by entering the diminutive establishment and seating myself at a small, plastic-covered table by the window. The interior is hand-painted in cheery primary colors, the walls festooned with big bumblebees, each with their own unique personality.
I ordered a pearl milk tea (also known as bubble or boba tea, $2.25) that was made just the way I like it—that is, sugary and bottomed out with tender tapioca marbles. Nothing brings out your inner child like sucking little, gummy spheres up, up, up through a big ol’ straw. I finished it quickly, and moved on to a jasmine pearl tea ($2.25) which had a sweet, perfumed aroma and flowery essence.
Having heard rumors of delightful bento box lunch specials, I was pleased to find the menu did indeed deliver. The two specials offered were the house special box ($5.55) and the lunch special box ($4.25) both with potstickers and steamed vegetables, and a choice of steamed rice, rice noodles or cold sesame noodles. Each box also contained an entrée—a choice of vegetable roll, stewed tofu skin, vegetable nuggets, hundred-layers tofu, special seitan (pronounced SAY-tahn, faux “meat” made from wheat gluten ... or “wheat meat,” as I call it) deep-fried tofu or the fishless fillet. The house special box was particularly appealing because it offered additional items: marinated bean curd and fried bread.
I ordered two boxes, one with the vegetable nuggets, and one with the fishless fillet or “tofish,” as I’ve affectionately named it. (I was raised vegetarian during my formative years and gave many meat-free items their own pet names, like “tam” for tofu ham, “veatballs” for veggie meatballs and “vurgers” for soy patties).
I also sprung for a bowl of hot and sour soup ($1.95). Since every Chinese restaurant has its own individual take on the recipe, I broached the ornate ceramic bowl with an open mind. The portion was ample, the soup was steaming hot. It made for a colorful presentation, adorned with cilantro leaves and coarse black pepper. There was a profusion of different mushrooms, shredded meat(less), carrot and preserved cucumber, the latter giving the broth an interesting and appetizing undertone.
But a few bites into it, the cilantro became overpowering. I fished out a spoonful, which gave the other flavors a chance to be enjoyed.
My boxes were delivered in good time, and aside from my childish delight in seeing my meal compartmentalized, the food was artfully arranged. The potstickers were fanned out on beds of shredded vegetation, and my steamed broccoli, carrots and green beans were lightly marinated in a thin, savory soy sauce.
The tofish slice was smaller than I expected but tasted better than I remembered. I was tickled by the faux fish skin on the outside. The “flesh” consistency was more condensed than the real thing, but the taste was similar to a slightly sweet fish cake. The vegetable nuggets (I decided on “vuggets”) were crisp, well-seasoned and paired well with a side of sauce.
The sesame noodles were fine but could have been enhanced by a sprinkle of toasted seeds. My fan of potstickers was a yummy mini-nosh, and the fried bread resembled a dense, sugary donut. I loved the marinated tofu, but I wasn’t wholly convinced it wasn’t a slice of deli-style tofurkey. It tasted like turkey. It had the texture of processed turkey. With a hint of mayo and some white bread, I would have been completely fooled.
The modest dessert list includes an egg custard shell ($.49) and “long life peach” ($.95)--a tiny, painted steamed bun filled with sweet red bean paste. It was almost too pretty to eat, but I devoured it in two sweet, chewy bites.
Overall, Fei’s is a nice diversion from the meated path and a windfall for vegetarians and vegans. The service does slow down considerably when the place is packed but go with friends or a good book and it’s no problem.
The Alibi Recommends:
House special bento box
Hot and sour soup
House special curry stew or vegetable stew with rice
Fei’s Café, 2114 Central SE (between Yale and University), 243-3390. Hours: Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m. Price range: inexpensive. No smoking, credit cards accepted (purchase must be over $3), patio.