A spacecraft has settled on South Shepherd, the third such landing in Houston. Passing drivers gawk at the bright splashes of neon (which could be hazardous as they navigate the infamous curve). A few, like me, become transfixed.
It could be a movie set, yet people come and go, and they’re eating inside. It’s so future world, so dreamy, and photographs best on a lonely rainy night.
It’s The Rice Box. And it’s taken Houston’s westernized Chinese food lovers by storm.
But a neon sign can only get you so far. According to their (equally garish) website, “The Rice Box is a multi-sensational, Chinese/American takeout restaurant where your experience begins the moment you set foot through the door. Walk into our world of glass and neon and you’ve just entered new wave Chinatown. Our edgy ambience is part of what makes us unique as a takeout food service.”
There are — at least in this newest River Oaks location — enough tables and chairs inside and out to make dining on site a viable option.
Looking at the menu, you’ll see what seems to be a greatest hits list from every Chinese restaurant in America. Sweet and Sour Chicken, Pepper Steak, Fried Rice… it’s all there. Street bites — Dumplings, Popcorn Chicken, Salt & Pepper Tofu — are also accounted for.
What makes The Rice Box’s versions of these dishes unique is their use of the freshest ingredients, often locally grown and organic. For example, beef is from 44 Farms, the darlings of livestock in Texas. The Rice Box sources everything itself.
This makes quite a difference in the finished dishes. Maybe not quite so much in flavor, though everything I’ve tried has been top of the class. General Tso Chicken is crisp, sweet and spicy as it should be. Orange Peeled Beef is… Orange Beef. Fried Rice is among the best of its kind, though certainly a traditional mix of egg, bean sprouts and green onion.
At The Rice Box though, the proteins are more pliant. Veggies have more vigor. Sauces are saucier, without the usual sodium windfall. Everything is fresher, more substantial, more alive.
More substantial that is, except for the prices. Item for item, The Rice Box appears to charge right at the going rate for mainstream Chinese restaurants. That’s good news, although The Rice Box doesn’t do the sort of soup-eggroll-main dish lunch specials that those other places depend on. The Rice Box doesn’t even serve soup, at all!
If it’s freshness you’re looking for in your stir fries, The Rice Box is your place for, as they put it, “mind blowing modern American-Chinese cuisine served from the retro-future.”
In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee explains that most Chinese restaurants rely on a centralized management system for menus, recipes, ingredients, pricing, even leasing the spaces. No wonder everything tastes so familiar!
Oh, and fortune cookies originated in Japan. And if you believe in Santa Claus, you probably believe in General Tso, too!