It might sound like a big-city concept – serving Mexican food and sushi at the same restaurant – but really, it was just a matter of common sense for Phyu Kyi, owner of Bento Cafe Mexican Grill & Sushi at 550 N. Ridge Road.
She opened the restaurant in April in the former Poblano Mexican Grill space, which is in a strip center near Central and Ridge that includes Bionic Burger.
Kyi wanted to open a sushi restaurant, but she spent six months working with the Poblano owners and learning how to make their menu, which remains intact at the business. Rather than choose between the two cuisines, she decided to offer both.
She’s executing both surprisingly well – and giving Wichita sushi fans a place they can dine out with their non-sushi-eating friends.
On the menu: The Mexican menu offers everything Poblano’s did, including build-your-own burritos, tacos, bowls and more. The sushi menu has several beautiful and unique rolls, plus sashimi, nigiri and appetizers such as calamari salad and tempura shrimp and avocado.
Don’t-miss dishes: The sushi is what’s most impressive, especially the “grilled sushi roll” ($10.99), a gorgeous creation that features crab, salmon and shrimp roll topped with roasted jalapeno peppers, bits of raw tuna and several colorful sauces. The roll is different and so fresh, and the slightly charred peppers give it a unique flavor.
Two other sushi rolls we tried were equally as beautiful. One was the crunch roll with crab ($8.49), which was filled with imitation crab and topped with cornflakes, French-fried onion bits and a sweet brown sauce. It was tasty and had great texture. But with all of its processed ingredients, it was inferior to the hot spicy dragon roll ($8.99), a brightly colored roll filled with tuna and crab and topped with Rice Krispie-like crunchies and what was billed as a “hot spicy sauce” but really was just a mayonnaise-based sauce. There wasn’t any spice I could detect.
Bento’s sushi chef, Thike Soe, worked for years at the former Bamboo Stix near 21st and Tyler, and he painstakingly prepares each roll as it’s ordered. Although Bento is an order-at-the-counter place, he doesn’t cut corners on presentation. Each roll is a piece of art, dramatically arranged and decorated with garnishes and sauces. It’s worth the wait but creates a practical problem: Mexican food comes out immediately. But you’ll wait for the sushi, and once word is out on how good it is, the wait could be lengthy.
Poblano, which has two still-open locations at 3415 E. Harry and 343 S. Greenwich Road, has always offered a reliable alternative to Chipotle, and the menu is all still there – including the delicious barbacoa, spicy shredded beef that’s slow-roasted in its own juices. Customers can build their own burritos, bowls, fajitas, tacos and tortas and watch as they’re assembled. Our favorite was a smothered burrito, which we filled with barbacoa, mild salsa, fresh corn salsa, lettuce, pinto beans and brown rice. It was a giant burrito, covered in a layer of green tomatillo sauce and sprinkled with shredded white cheese. We needed a knife and fork to eat it, and we ate it all.
We also tried crispy tacos with grilled steak ($5.49 for three), but the meat was a little dry. The ground beef was better, and chicken and barbacoa also are available as fillings for tacos, which are available in crispy shells or soft flour tortillas.
Ambiance: Bento is not a fancy, sit-down restaurant. It’s an order-at-the-counter place with self-serve soda and basic tables and chairs. But the room is clean and tidy and has a few decorative touches. Mexican dishes are served in plastic taco baskets. Sushi comes on nice, white dishes for dine-in customers. It’s also all available to go in Styrofoam. One complaint: The wasabi is more like wasabi mousse, and a giant serving comes with pickled ginger inside the small bowl intended for soy sauce. It’s awkward to separate out the right amount of wasabi and remove the ginger so dipping can commence. We ended up piling ours in a finished salsa cup.
Price range: Burritos range from $5.49 for a basic chicken or veggie burrito to $7.49 for a super burrito with two kinds of beans and two meats. Nachos, fajitas, salad bowls and tortas are all $5.99. A serving of three tacos is $5.49, 20 cents more if the tacos are filled with barbacoa. Nigiri sushi is four pieces for $5.99. Rolls range from $5.59 for a basic to $14.99 for an elaborate roll, through most are around $8 to $11.
Service: The three people behind the counter are eager to please, but diners ordering sushi will have to be patient as the chef prepares the elaborate rolls one at a time.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Bento Cafe Mexican Grill & Sushi
Three out of four stars
Where: 550 N. Ridge Road, 316-944-7313
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays
Type of food: Mexican food, sushi