Believe it or not, fast-food joints once had something more to offer than just predictability, affordability and convenience. There used to be family-owned places that were gathering spots for the community, and where the food was cooked fresh as you ordered it. Some survivors of the pre-1970s era when fast food went global still exist, such as San Jose's Burger Bar and Mark's Hot Dogs.
There are also newer places that carry on that great tradition, including Bento Xpress, tucked into a Milpitas shopping center across the street from City Hall.
Bento Xpress takes the Japanese tradition of fast, convenient, tasty lunches, adds a dash of aloha and comes up with an only-in-Silicon Valley multicultural and affordable eatery.
The teriyaki chicken ($5.95 for a small that includes white or brown rice, $7.95 for a large that adds green salad, pickled bean sprouts and an orange slice) was a grilled boneless, skinless breast sliced thin and coated with a sweet but not cloying sauce. It had some nice grill marks for flavor but still remained moist.
The teriyaki salmon (large only at $8.95) was even better, perfectly done, nice and fresh tasting with just the right amount of teriyaki sauce.
If you're a pork lover, try the katsu. A crunchy outer coating of toasted panko bread crumbs covered a moist cutlet that delivered solid pork flavor. It came with a dipping sauce that tasted like a combination of Worcestershire and ginger and I don't know what. Small dabs were good with the katsu but too much just overwhelmed the pork and toasty bread crumb combination.
Bento Xpress has two tempura options, shrimp and vegetable ($8.50 large only) and vegetarian ($7.95). The shrimp was perfectly fried with a crisp coating that wasn't oily at all and didn't have any of those air pockets or areas of unfried batter just underneath the outer crunch. The vegetables included carrot slices on the bias, broccoli, mushroom and zucchini or squash. They came out just as well as the shrimp. And there was no hassle when I special-ordered just mushrooms and carrots.
The décor at Bento Xpress is nothing special. We're talking Formica tables, with floor tile continuing halfway up the wall and a few surf boards hanging on the wall.
Luckily, the Hawaiian vibe is about more than just the decor. You can get a loco moco, that unique island combination of a hamburger patty, fried egg and brown gravy, as well as saimin, the Hawaiian noodle soup. But my favorite Hawaiian dish there is the kalua pork ($6.95 small, $8.95 large), the flavorful, slightly salty, fork-tender pulled pork found all over the 50th state.
Everything is available as part of a two- or three-item combination. You can also add extras, such as California rolls, pot stickers or egg rolls. The pot stickers are excellent, pan fried with a combination of pork and vegetables that had some spice but were not at all hot. They came with a soy-based dipping sauce.
Bento Xpress has both fountain drinks as well as a selection of canned energy drinks and bottled water and other options. Keeping with the island theme, they also have Kona Brewing Co. beers on tap -- Big Wave Golden Ale, Longboard Lager and Fire Rock Pale Ale.
You won't find that under the golden arches.
Contact Jason Bennert via email@example.com.
23 N. Milpitas Blvd., Milpitas
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday
Types of food: Japanese bento boxes, Hawaiian specialties and some sushi
Average meal price: $11 or less for most combo meals
Good choices: Shrimp and vegetable tempura, chicken or pork katsu
Vegetarian options: Plenty
Amenities: Both indoor and outdoor seating
Credit cards: All major ones
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.