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How Dallas’s Most Adorable Bento Box Is Made

A behind the scenes look at popular Japanese pop-up Okaeri Cafe’s detail-obsessed take on the dish

In the pandemic era, plastic containers and to-go boxes have often limited the aesthetic quality of even top-notch dishes. But that’s not the case at Okaeri Cafe, a new Japanese pop-up that’s now serving some of the most adorable takeout in Dallas.

Operated by Gene Tran and Michelle Pepping, Okaeri Cafe was in the works for about a year before the pandemic hit. As COVID-19 began shuttering businesses, plans for the pop-up were postponed. “It’s been a little tough.” Gene states. “We weren’t sure if it was going to be the best thing, but we didn’t just want to sit on our hands.”

Operating out of a small commercial kitchen space leased by Tran and Pepping, Okaeri Cafe has earned a following almost exclusively via word of mouth. Its menu is posted online, sometimes only for a few hours, and boasts dishes like omurice, Japanese curry, and of course, the wildly popular bento boxes. After placing an order, diners pick up their dishes at Okaeri Cafe’s kitchen off of Webb Chapel in North Dallas, or at crawfish favorite Tasty Tails in Richardson.

In addition to stamping out little bear-shaped “bowls” of rice that hold a heaping serving of Japanese curry, Okaeri Cafe’s teriyaki chicken bento box is the definition of a fan favorite. Take a peek behind the scenes at how it’s made, along with a look at the restaurant’s bear-shaped Japanese curry bowls, courtesy of Eater photographer Kathy Tran.

First, freshly steamed brown and white rice, is pressed into molds that are shaped like dog heads. Tran and Pepping take special care to make sure that the rice is blended to resemble the fur of a Shiba Inu pup.

Kathy Tran

Then, sheets of seaweed (nori) are pressed with special stamps to create salty accent pieces — whiskers, eyes, and a tiny button nose — for the rice balls.

Next, thinly sliced carrots are stamped into the shape of — what else? — dog bones to accompany the pup-shaped snacks.

Later, even more rice balls are made to round out the bento box, each decorated with small smiley faces.

Kathy Tran

Finally, the box is delicately assembled and finished with a portion of freshly made teriyaki chicken, and broccoli for garnish.

For the curry bowls, a similar mold is used to shape a “bowl” from steamed rice, this time in the shape of a bear’s head. Ears and eyes for the rice bear are cut from seaweed, then delicately placed on top of the molded rice.

Then, steaming hot curry, made with carrots and potato, is ladled into the bowl, and it’s ready to serve. It’s almost too cute to eat.

Keep up with Okaeri Cafe on Instagram for more details on when its menu goes live and how to score these ridiculously creative dishes.

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