Jolie's Bento Central

Jolie Josephson is not a gourmet and doesn't pretend to be. Her recipe is simple — meat, rice, sauce.

I was first introduced to Josephson and her bento bowls a few years back when I was working on a column about curbside dining. Ever since, my editor and I have made regular trips to the large, chrome-plated stand, just a five-minute walk from the Mail Tribune office.

Josephson first opened her cart on the corner of Eighth Street and Central Avenue, but as her preparation methods did not conform to Medford's food-cart codes, she was forced to move. Josephson rented a more visible space on the corner of Main Street and Riverside Avenue, where she was open weekday afternoons and weekend nights, thus targeting her largest demographics: downtown businessfolk and bar-hoppers.

After two-and-a-half years of battling the elements and the smoke, Josephson had outgrown the cart and, even with two barbecues, could not keep up with demand. She credits her success to the visibility, the aroma of meat on the grill, her co-workers' personalities and the drunken munchies.

At the end of August, she moved her business — Jolie's Bento Central — into an empty space about 100 feet west.

The restaurant is now open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11:30 to 6 Saturday. Josephson says she will continue to operate her food cart from 9:30 p.m. to about 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. She says the late-night crowds are too entertaining to give up.

Last week, my editor and I headed over to check out the new space. Josephson is still in the process of moving in but, with a little paint and some light fixtures, has transformed the former consignment clothing shop into a trendy, albeit rather bare, downtown cafe.

Josephson says the menu board is being framed, and they are still looking for art for the walls. She also is planning to hang a community corkboard where customers can post fun, family photos.

In addition to her tried-and-true chicken and steak bentos, Bento Central now also offers four wraps and several bento variations.

Chicken bento ($6.25) is my usual. Josephson marinates the chicken and steak in her husband's secret, soy-based sauce for one to four days before grilling it. The chicken is tender with golden grill marks and sometimes crispy, blackened edges. Josephson chops the meat into bite-sized pieces and heaps it onto a mound of sticky white rice that she prepares with coconut milk. Patrons then can dress bentos with sauces of their choosing. There's soy, teriyaki and, my personal favorite, sweet chili.

While traditional Japanese bentos are simply protein and rice on the go, the barbecue definitely gives Josephson's bentos an American flavor. Bentos are perfect for takeout but now can be ordered in shallow, ceramic dishes for dining in. Bentos are served on white or brown (50 cents extra) rice or noodles.

My editor ordered the noodles and, while she liked the option, said she still would prefer the rice. Josephson says their secret marinade also is added to the noodles so the soy flavor permeates the entire dish.

At Josephson's recommendation, I ordered the avocado, turkey and bacon wrap ($7.25) on a sun-dried tomato tortilla. Other wraps include turkey, cranberry and cream cheese ($6.50) and tuna and melted cheese ($6.50). Wraps are served on your choice of sun-dried tomato, jalapeno-cheddar or herb tortillas.

The pulled turkey was actually so tender and moist that I mistook it for chicken. Along with the turkey, there were pieces of bacon, tomato, lettuce, slices of avocado, onion and cheese bathed in ranch dressing and barbecue sauce. At first, I was skeptical of this combination but, after trying it, decided it was a good pairing.

Vegetables and tofu also are welcome additions to the restaurant's bento fare. On a separate occasion, I tried a chicken-and-vegetable bento and soon recognized the vegetable combination as Costco's stir-fry mix. While I appreciate the color and variety of this mix, the vegetables seemed a tad soggy.

Chips, side salads or pasta with feta, artichokes, olives and bow-tie noodles can be tacked onto any entree for $1.25 or for $2 with a drink.

I'm glad to see Josephson moving up in the world, but I'm also glad to see her bento hasn't changed.

— Teresa Thomas

Share This Story