Downtown LA has been the destination of many new restaurant openings, but quality Chinese food has never been a strong suit in the area, with the exception of Chinatown, of course. Rice Box, which opened September 19, introduces the Downtown crowd to Cantonese-style barbecue, saving a trip to SGV. Instead, of a large dining room, Rice Box will focus on providing ‘rice boxes’ on the go and via delivery, though it does sport a few seats inside its prime Spring Arcade location.
Diners can create custom rice boxes, choosing from the signature char siu (barbecued pork), black soy-poached chicken, crispy seven spice pork belly, or a vegan special. What sets Rice Box apart from the typical Cantonese barbecue shops is a dedication to using better ingredients. Rice Box uses only organic produce, as well as ethically-sourced, sustainable, and hormone-free meat. Chef and co-owner Leo Lee makes sauces and seasonings on location without any MSG, which why the dishes may taste a tad different from the traditional Cantonese barbecue shops.
Typically Chinese food doesn’t aim to be ‘healthy’, but Rice Box hopes to change that perception. “I’ve always been very health conscious and it was important to us that we created a quality product for our customers,” says co-owner Lydia Lee.
Rice Box’s signature item is the char siu barbecued pork. Using Duroc pork, Leo Lee uses Lydia’s family recipe that’s been passed down for more than three decades. They marinate the char siu overnight, then slow cook it in a smoker to tenderize it. At the end they’ll char for half an hour to lock in the flavor before glazing on honey.
“Many of the places that serve char siu [make it] unnaturally red from food coloring,” Leo said. “We don’t use any MSG. A lot of times what you’re tasting is the MSG. This is going to be the beginning of something new, a turning point. No MSG is going to be the norm in the future.”
Instead of the traditional crispy pork, Rice Box uses triple-roasted porchetta. Leo bakes the pork belly in the oven for 30 minutes to tighten up the skin, followed by using Lydia’s family’s seasoning recipe to marinate it overnight. The meat is then rolled into a roulade and cured with salt and vinegar. The next day, they roast the pork belly for three hours in the oven and then place in their Chinese barbecue smoker for another hour to crisp up the skin, bringing the total to about 26 hours of total cook time for the pork.
For the black-soy poached chicken, Leo poaches whole Mary’s organic chicken in black soy stock for three hours before breaking down the chicken and deboning it. None of the meats come on the bone at Rice Box, a departure from more traditional Cantonese shops.
Rice Box also features a modern twist on traditional bao (buns). Leo makes fresh, fluffy almond milk baos filled with original char siu, cheesy char siu, or vegan shiitake mushroom. He fills the vegan option with shitake mushroom, vermicelli, and vegan char siu marinade. The char siu buns are made with slow cooked Duroc pork just like the porchetta pork. For those looking for something photo-worthy, the unique cheesy char siu bao is a white and gray marble colored bun made with activated charcoal that’s perfect for photos. It oozes gooey cheese for the ultimate Instagram grab.
For dessert, Rice Box does their take on Hong Kong-style eggette. It makes bubble waffle ice cream sandwiches using organic eggs, employing local ice cream in seasonal flavors.
The Lees have dedicated to making the Rice Box space an ode to their hometown of Hong Kong. Old school Stephen Chow and kung fu movies play in the background as Leo chops up the barbecue. In a flood of mainland Chinese and Sichuan restaurants that have opened in LA in the past few years, Rice Box is a welcome change to the local scene. The wall is an homage to Hong Kong as well, with a caricature of Stephen Chow’s character in the action spy comedy From Beijing with Love, where Chow appropriately plays a Chinese barbecue butcher turned spy.
Lydia’s grandfather owned a popular Cantonese barbecue restaurant in Hong Kong for over 20 years. Her uncle still owns a number of restaurants in Taiwan that has been using the same family recipes for over three decades. Leo graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, grewing up in his grandparents’ Chinese restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico. Upon graduating from the CIA, Leo worked in hotels and restaurants in New York City and Miami, before moving to LA to manage multiple restaurants for Patina Restaurant Group.
To celebrate its opening, the first 50 guests on October 2 will receive one free cheesy char siu bao. The Lees will also be handing out coupons, scratchers, and other prizes to customers. Rice Box will serve lunch and dinner six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. beginning October 2, though they will be open for limited service from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. until that day.
Rice Box. 541 S Spring St #131, Los Angeles, CA 90013. (626) 360-6912.