Sometimes a restaurant is named for something not even on the menu. At Yasda Bento in Downtown Phoenix, there are no lunches served in the traditional Japanese container known as a “bento.” Instead, the quick-service restaurant is all about Asian-inspired meals served mostly in bowls. The “bento” wording is more a nod to the Japanese influence on the menu than the actual vessel used to serve the food. Authenticity of word use aside, Yasda offers a number of items that could go into a bento box and has earned a steady midday clientele over the past decade.
Yasda was once the Downtown branch of Yoshi’s, but it charted an independent course as that local chain contracted. It appears to have undergone a recent change in ownership, but the formula remains essentially the same. The location is a small space on Adams Street just a block from the Washington / Central (westbound) and First Avenue / Jefferson (eastbound) light rail stations. Some of the parking meters on Adams have loop designs that allow them to double as bike racks, and there are two full racks located immediately east and west of the restaurant.
Photographs along the wall not only showcase the menu, but also indicate the path along which customers are expected to line up during the busy hours at lunchtime. A lunch special is usually advertised on a placard near the door, but the best way to get a good value is often to order a bowl, either large or small; an appetizer or side; and a drink in order to obtain a combo discount. The small bowls are enough for most appetites when paired with something else from the menu; the large is preferable for bigger appetites or if it’s going to be the only component of a meal.
A lot of customers get their food to go, but those who stay can sit at a few tables inside, a few more outside on the sidewalk, or at one of two counters with a view of the street. There’s little decor here, and most customers come and go too quickly to notice. The congested corner of the restaurant where customers wait for their food to be prepared is also where the condiment bar is found. After picking up an order but before sitting down, stock up on sliced scallions, hot sauce, and Japanese condiments such as shichimi togarashi, mix of spices and red pepper.
The most familiar item at Yasda might be the teriyaki chicken, available with or without vegetables. It’s a solid version with a good balance of tastes, although the depth of flavor isn’t as strong as it could be. This particular teriyaki seems to rely as much on application of sauce after grilling as it does on advance marination. That’s even more evident with the veggie bowl, a meatless entree, and the teriyaki salmon, which features fish that been poached rather than grilled. Another option, spicy teriyaki sauce, adds a layer of moderate burn on top of the bowl.
If looking for other rice bowl dishes, a few items with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese influences show the most promise. The bulgogi involves tender beef in a dark, rich sauce with notes of soy sauce and sesame. The spicy shrimp bowl, also available with chicken, includes small prawns with crisp vegetables like water chestnuts and baby corn in a slightly fiery stir fry mix. The most satisfying dish, though, is the curry. This is a typical Japanese curry with a thick brown sauce, a light level of spice, and pieces of grilled chicken mixed with cubed potatoes and carrots.
Some other meals in a bowl at Yasda are more obviously Americanized. The Hawaiian bowl is essentially a sweet-and-sour chicken dish with chunks of canned pineapple mixed with various stir-fried vegetables. As with almost anything labeled “sweet and sour,” the viscous sauce is much more sugary than tart. The orange chicken, sometimes featured as a daily special, has the same tendencies in the sauce that coats pieces of fried poultry. In both cases, proceed with caution unless you’re an unabashed fan of American Chinese food with thickened sauces.
Yakisoba and hibachi soba both incorporate pan-fried egg noodles with vegetables and chicken. Yaki has a more savory sauce while hibachi tends toward a sweeter taste. Udon noodles are served in a comforting soup with a bit of tempura and optional chicken. Recently, there’s also been a special udon topped with a choice of the soba sauces. It works, but the accompanying iceberg salad with bright red dressing does not. Another new addition, Korean ramen, has a spicy broth, but the instant noodles in the bowl lack the resilient texture of Yasda’s other noodles.
Among the sides and appetizers, the gyoza and egg rolls are dependable treats from the deep fryer. The meat-filled gyoza come three-to-an-order with spicy, vinegary dipping sauce. The egg rolls, available with pork, chicken, or vegetable fillings, are crisp and satisfying. Miso soup, edamame, and sunomono (pickled cucumber salad) are also good choices, but it’s best to pass on the small selection of packaged sushi rolls kept in a display case at the counter. Their fillings are fine, but the texture of the rolls is undermined by excessively gummy rice.
Drinks at Yasda are limited to the soda fountain and bottles of water, ice tea, and lemonade. Since the restaurant closes in the middle of the afternoon, there’s not much point to a liquor license. The printed menu lists a few desserts, but they’re never on display and no one has been overhead ordering one during numerous visits. Yasda may be more about the convenience of a disposable bowl than the authenticity of a traditional bento, but it remains a worthwhile place for quick meals during a busy workday in the heart of the Downtown business district.
18 W. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Jefferson / 1st Avenue (eastbound) and Washington / Central (westbound) stations