Orange-peeled beef

Formerly one of Houston’s most beloved food trucks, The Rice Box now has three brick-and-mortar joints with its most recent outpost having opened in River Oaks at 1111 Shepherd Drive less than a month ago. Like the other branches, this Rice Box offers consumers “mind-blowing American Chinese cuisine served from the retro-future” (a description that I promise you would have Heidegger face-palming).

But given that this latest Rice Box offers three River Oaks-only specials (two of which are home runs), it may also be the greatest.

I ventured into the flashy space, replete with angular iron high-tops and neon lighting, to try the exclusive eats.  

The orange-peeled beef was by far the most disappointing for its pedestrian flavor and less-than-palatable texture. There is little point in using 44 Farms Beef (and boasting about it on your website) if you’re going to batter it to death in a saccharine coating that completely masks the purported “hint of spice” as well as the meat’s savory vagaries engendered by subtleties in its fatty marbling. Furthermore, this overzealous battering also gave rise to an unpleasantly, gummy mouthfeel that had me thinking I was chomping mystery meat rather than quality bovine flesh.

Egg custard buns

Fortunately, the other two specials were a full 180-degree pivot with regards to execution. The Chongqing Chicken, a hallmark of Szechuan cuisine traditionally prepared via a beer or wine marinade (in this case, the former) and a heavy handful of red chilis, brought bearable heat from the peppers and ginger as expected but also balance from the inclusion of umami tones of soy sauce and aromatic bitterness from the scallions and garlic.  

Finally, the egg custard buns (two to an order), a sweet coda in the form of twin fluffy, supple dough balls still steaming to the touch. Their thick, mildly sweet warm ova filling had the consistency more of pudding than of custard, but I liked how its slight runniness mimicked that of over-easy egg.

With a plurality of specials worth their price tag, plus the option for a version of General Tso’s chicken that is far from so-so, the River Oaks location will remain (for now) my favorite member of the Rice Box family.

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