The General Tso’s chicken at Rice Box is served hawker-style, delivered from the steam-filled fiery kitchen through a small sliver of window space. A not-so-average Chinese take-out box is stuffed with dark, honey-golden mounds of bite-sized battered and fried chicken bits glistening with the glow of a sweet, savory sauce, and a couple of pieces of steamed broccoli. The chicken is a satisfying balance of meat and batter, and unlike in many other versions around town, the sauce is not heavy or overly sweet. Buried underneath is a healthy helping of steamed rice, and a fat Chinese egg roll sits atop the opened box of food.
The popular food truck had been a fixture in Montrose, usually parked across the street from Houston faves Anvil Bar or Poison Girl. Owner John Peterson opened the truck back in January of 2012 and expanded with a second outpost inside 5 Greenway Plaza in the food court in February of 2016. The food truck is now closed. Just three months ago, Peterson and his partner Jenny Vo settled into something more permanent in the space of former Chirps Chicken & Rice at the corner of 20th and Rutland in the Heights.
The menu now sports a few new items, including Vo’s garlicky sweet chile and a Szechuan pepper oil for diners who want to raise the heat level. The coolest new additions include two nitro taps dedicated to serving up creamy non-dairy versions of common, everyday Asian teas. The Thai on nitro is a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am creation that uses nitrogen to give a smooth and effervescent finish to Thai iced tea, which is normally made with milk. The absence of dairy makes it a nice alternative for all drinkers. Nitrogen bubbles are naturally smaller than carbon dioxide bubbles, thus presenting a smoother taste; this exciting yet not-so-new technology is perfect for these creamy sweet teas.
The sauce on the kung pao chicken was light, and not as sticky as I’d expected. The green and red bell pepper was chunky and could’ve used another minute of cooking time, but the wok-charred bits of soy-marinated thigh meat were tender and flavorful. The stir-fry included a few pieces of cabbage, sambal chile paste and a few peanuts and was sprinkled with fresh green onion. Aside from the taste of the chicken itself, the kick was missing in the kung pao.
We tried the Mongolian beef and pepper steak to check out the red-meat selections. We were not delighted. The meat was cut into manageable pieces, and in both preparations, the texture was tender but the meat fell short on flavor. The Mongolian beef was wok-fried with lots of veggies. The carrots and onions were cooked well and the sauce seemed to catch every morsel in the fry except the meat. These two dishes tasted very similar; there’s not much to a stir-fry marinade: oyster-flavored sauce, soy, sometimes fish sauce and mirin (at least in my kitchen), pepper, sesame oil and corn starch.
The glaze looked particularly appetizing on the pepper steak but, sadly, it was all glamour and glitz. The meat and sauce was flat, and once again the bell pepper was a tad on the al dente side.
Chow fun is one of the new items that seem to be flying off the woks. It’s a flat rice noodle similar in width to something between fettucine and tagliatelle pasta and is widely used in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. Rice Box combines the noodle with a dark, oyster-flavored sauce, scrambled egg omelette, bean sprouts, snow peas and cabbage. A choice of beef, chicken or a combination of plump shrimp and sliced Chinese sausage can be added at extra charge. I ordered my chow fun extra-spicy, but the kitchen didn’t get the memo. No worries; the staff was cool about redoing the order and I took home an extra serving of not-so-spicy chow fun.
The extra-spicy level did not do it for me, but the addition of Vo’s Szechuan chile oil made for a more interesting tingle.
For a genuine review of Rice Box, I decided to take my food to go for one of the visits. Items were packed well, each in its own Chinese food to-go box container, sans the metal wires, so heating would be easy-peasy. The boxes come with instructions for opening. Turns out the containers are made for serving as well. Pull apart the sides and each box becomes a serving platter; the paper is sturdy enough and won’t fall apart even though all the entrées are pretty saucy.
The only item that didn’t quite hold up to the challenge of to-go fooding was the salt and pepper tofu. This appetizer is usually deep-fried and is meant to be eaten while hot with a tangy side of dipping sauce. All the tofu was super-soft, and unfortunately the crunch did not survive the trip from Montrose to West Houston. The sweet garlic and chile sauce was very tasty, but we had to pass on the soft and bland tofu.
At first the house fried rice did not wow me, but I did find myself going back for bite after bite. Missing were the usual suspects, the peas and carrots. With only bean sprouts, egg, green onions and a choice of beef, chicken or shrimp, the fried rice was flavorful and free of clumps.
Each standard entrée is served with steamed rice and an egg roll. Substitutions are available for an additional cost. On our second visit, we ended up with two entrées served atop very clumpy rice. The curry fried rice with the addition of chicken was by far our favorite dish of the evening; it was perfectly spiced and the chicken complemented the rice very well.
The crispy dry-rubbed wings are deep-fried and can be tossed in a sweet chile, General Tso, sweet sour or sesame sauce. We suggest getting the sauce on the side so you can really enjoy these big, juicy wings.
There are no desserts on the menu, but everyone gets a fortune cookie. We had our meal outside in the covered patio area, where there’s enough seating for a few small groups. Inside are nine metal bar stools and a permanent photo booth ready and set up with Rice Box’s cool RB logo stacked on itself in neon blue and red as the background. Peterson was inspired by a scene out of 1982’s Blade Runner in which Harrison Ford’s character sits under an awning in the rain waiting for a free seat at the Japanese noodle bar. Food lovers and movie buffs are encouraged to snap a shot of themselves at the counter in front of the neon glow.
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The servers refer to the menu at the new Rice Box in the Heights as version 2.0; “the classics are still available, but the new stuff is where it’s at,” said an employee. We don’t completely agree. The General Tso’s is pretty darn good — in fact, all the classic chicken-focused items we tried, along with the teas on nitro, were stellar; the beef dishes need to be tweaked, and the tofu should come with a do-not-take-to-go label.
Rice Box serves Americanized Chinese food. It doesn’t shove authenticity down your throat, it doesn’t apologize for the lack thereof; it’s almost an entirely different genre of cuisine. As far as “Chinese-American food” goes, Rice Box is a hip, cool place to find inexpensive, fast and tasty stir-fry.
Rice Box — Heights
300 West 20th, 713-993-6577, riceboxed.com. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
General Tso’s chicken $8.99
Kung pao chicken $8.95
Pepper steak $10.99
House fried rice (with chicken) $5.99
Curry fried rice (with shrimp) $8.99
Wing’s (sweet chile sauce on side) $8.99
Chow fun (shrimp and Chinese sausage) $11.99
Salt and pepper tofu $5.99
Thai on nitro $2.99
Saint Arnold’s PCP $5.99