For a small city, Kumamoto sure has a lot of choice when it comes to catering to the cosmopolitan diner. One of the newest additions to Kumamoto’s wide variety of choices is ‘Billy Bento’, a fusion of Western dishes and the Japanese style with a San Francisco flavour. Completely unique, Billy Bento offers authentic flavours, top-quality ingredients, and a casual atmosphere to make for a jolly good luncheon. So if you fancy something that is great value for money that can’t be found anywhere else in Kumamoto, head for Billy Bento.
This restaurant is the project of Maki and Billy, a personable pair who, after spending over a decade living in California’s San Francisco have moved back to Maki’s native Kumamoto. The restaurant opened in August 2015 in a fairly central location, just a few minutes walk from the top of the Kamitori shopping arcade. If you think the address rings a bell, it’s possible that you’ve been there before – a restaurant by day, the premises turn into an izakaya at night (a business owned by Maki’s brother).
The restaurant is of sleek, simple décor – a relaxing ambience conducive to having a peaceful luncheon in a calming atmosphere. No wailing, whinging pop songs pumped out of the CD player here – Billy Bento plays classy, grown-up music with a modern, alternative feel and hints of 80’s classics, with songs on the hit list being ‘Little Bit’ by Lykke Li and ‘Six Days’ by DJ Shadow.
Aside from friendly proprietors and a cosy atmosphere, Billy Bento also makes awesome food. With the typical Japanese service style, expect your meal to come with standard extras such as soup and salad. On our most recent visit, the leek and potato soup (thick, warming and expertly flavoured) came with croûton-esque slices of bread seasoned with rosemary, and the crisp chicken salad was smothered in a peppy Thai sauce like a tangy satay – delicious. But enough about starters – here is what’s on offer for mains.
When I think of tacos, I think of brittle shells that explode into a million pieces when you bite into them and taste vaguely of orange cardboard. Not so at Billy Bento! The tacos are some of the best choices on the menu, and at 400 Yen for one piece or 750 Yen for two they’re well priced. The taco is served flat with the filling piled up on top, and you can roll it up to eat however you choose.
In terms of fillings: you can choose carnitas or pollo asado (meat or chicken), lettuce and chipotle salsa, Thai yellow curry chicken with peanut slaw and hot sauce, Korean pork with lettuce and a sweet and sour chilli sauce, and finally the crispy taco. We opted for the yellow curry – the bite of the lime offsetting the peppy sweetness of the curry is making for a delicious fusion of flavours. The carnitas taco is one of their bestsellers.
Hands down my favourite thing on the menu are the grilled cheese sandwiches: they are generously filled and a culinary work of art. The perfectly golden toast is crisped to just the right consistency. For 400 yen you can indulge in dairy heaven with ‘Say Cheese’ – the sandwich stuffed with four different types of cheese to wow the lactose-loving diner. At 650 yen the grilled cheese steak with onions and peppers is more expensive but totally worth it as they use local Kumamoto beef to make this delicious sandwich. At 600 yen the other options include Korean pork with kimchi and sesame, bacon and jalapeño and finally the vegetarian’s delight – four kinds of mushroom. We opted for the cheese steak and it was worth every penny – generously flowing creamy cheese, a tricolour of peppers and soft, flavoursome onions. This is real soul food and tastes so good that I struggle to try anything else on the menu.
If grilled cheese sandwiches aren’t your thing (such things happen, so I hear…) there are plenty of delicious options in the plain sandwich section. I say ‘plain’, but there is nothing plain about these flavours on offer. For 600 yen you can grab the veggies and pesto sandwich, or if you’re feeling a bit more carnivorous then you should consider having the Philly cheese steak for 750 yen – another one of their bestsellers. Other sandwich options are the jerk chicken (a house favourite) and the carnitas torta, both priced at 700 yen.
The menu also offers a couple of non-sandwich options, probably catering to those traditional Japanese diners who gasp at the thought of a meal without rice. Choices include Thai yellow chicken curry, chicken with carrots and daikon, Korean pork and jerk chicken with coconut – all served with rice and all priced at 700 yen.
A cup of San Francisco roasted coffee (Philz brand) will set you back 350 yen, or for 200 yen the beverage options are juice (mango, blood orange, or pineapple) or Italian soda (peach and lemon or cassis). The coffee isn’t cheap but you get what you pay for – it has the pleasurable bitterness of a good, dark roast and goes perfectly with a slice of banana bread (another favourite) which is crisp on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside with a fine dust icing.
Billy Bento is a unique restaurant in Kumamoto and a must-visit for anyone who likes international or fusion dining. One thing I really like about it is that there is a good selection of vegetarian options on the menu – a telltale sign of a cosmopolitan influence, particularly from a Foodie city like San Francisco. If you just can’t decide what to pick but want to try something with an authentic San Franciscan flavour, you’re recommended to try the chicken or carnitas taco.
The restaurant has a lunchtime-only operation and is open from 11 am until 2 pm (last orders at 1.30) on Monday-Friday, and from 11 am until 6 pm on Sundays (closed on Saturdays). I highly recommend this place for both locals and foreigners alike – particularly long-term expats who are missing the authentic flavours of delicious, Western dishes. For more details, check out their Facebook page.