Boke Bowl is a great introduction to Asian food, for those who've never eaten beyond generic Chinese or Thai takeout but want to step up a level in sophistication.
The restaurant on Southeast Water Avenue in Portland features a menu of basic flavors that are safe, yet craftily assembled. The offerings include well-known Asian staples such as ramen and rice bowls. These aren't too out of the ordinary (as opposed to a whole duck, crab or fish you might eat at a Chinese banquet). What distinguishes these staples, though, are the refinements of the main ingredients.
For example, the ramen comes with options for house noodles or, for a healthier choice, gluten-free yam noodles. The vegetable noodles don't taste much different from the house noodles, so they are a good substitute. The ramen is accompanied by either meat -- your choice of slow-smoked pork, poached shrimp or black cod -- or caramelized fennel dashi, Japanese eggplant and rice cake toppings. The fennel and soft strips eggplant add richness to the broth.
The other star on the menu is the Korean buttermilk fried chicken paired with "orange dot sauce," an aioli base with pickled mustard seeds. Brined for two days and coated with a garlic and ginger soy vinegar sauce, the chicken is slightly crunchy on the outside and incredibly moist, easily broken apart by chopsticks. The chicken is nearly as good as Nong's Khao Man Gai or Cackalack's Hot Chicken Shack, for fast, ready to-go chicken. If the ginger soy seasoning were also infused with chili, the chicken would be reminiscent to the Korean hot wings and drumsticks found in Los Angeles.
A variety of side dishes are also available, very similar to customary Korean banchan. Usually, banchan includes an assortment of pickled or savory vegetables. Boke Bowl's kimchi, soy pickled shiitake mushrooms and pickled cucumbers are fun to munch on before the main course.
There are a few oddball sweets, such as peanut butter and jelly steam buns, Twinkies and creme brulee doughnuts. They are such strong contrasts in flavor and cuisine, so unlike the menu's careful attention to the other treats with an infused Asian element, such as lemongrass-ginger soft serve or coconut kafir lemongrass tapioca. But hey, they certainly satisfy any sugar cravings.
To top it off, the restaurant is clean, with orange-and-white decorations. The hot sauces on the table feature cute cartoon labels to show the level of spiciness. (The one with the crying face: Yes, it's hot, and this is coming from someone who puts Sriracha sauce on everything.) Best of all, it has a laid-back vibe, casual enough for a solo lunch break, table for one.