Ode to blandness

Okay, walk east on the sidewalk in front of San Remo (the one on Frankford Road) and you'll come to the Rice Boxx.

It's just a Chinese take-out, but since I happened to know it was designed by some talent, and since I also knew it was owned by the same people who own Lovers Eggroll, of which I am a long-time fan, I was happy to try it.

It's hands-down the snappiest-looking take-out in town, a totally monochromatic design based on a gridwork (What's black and white and square all over? Rice Boxx) with Milan-esque light fixtures. Yes, it's an art director's dream come true.

The rest of the population--those of us who value clutter and color--might find it a bit sterile. Stark. All the ambience of an operating theater.

It's a self-service situation: you place an order at the counter, and they call your number when it's up, so to speak. It took us a while to order because the order-taker kept getting distracted by a man who was trying to return his dumpling soup because "it doesn't have any dumplings in it."

We ordered dumplings, too, but not in soup. Potstickers--steamed and fried pork dumplings--are a delight at Lovers Eggroll, so we had to have them at the Boxx. But here they were disappointing bundles of blandness--wads of pasty meat in thick pasty wrappers. Somehow, even the soy-ginger sauce was watery.

Altogether, our food at Rice Boxx didn't compare with Lovers Eggroll, though as the mother of two I realize that comparisons are not only odious but rarely meaningful. Still, you have an ideal of a simple dish like pork in garlic sauce by which you measure all others. And, though everything was certainly fresh and beautiful at Rice Boxx, something was lacking.

Aaah, that's it. Flavor! The cooks pulled the punch on almost everything.
Lemon chicken, deep-fried sticks of white meat with a sugary-tart sauce, turned out to be one of the most flavorful dishes we ate. It's a concoction I usually relegate to the kids, who will eat almost anything if it's fried and sweet. (I should try frittering brussels sprouts and dousing them with honey.) But when I tasted the garlic pork, which was not only chewy as rubber bands, but flavorless, the lemon chicken was worth snitching a bite.

Beef with broccoli was pretty good--a deep brown sauce, tender strips of meat, a million slices of water chestnuts, and plenty of bright green florets, which my daughter picked out one by one, leaving the meat and sauce behind. Kung Pao chicken had plenty o'peanuts but no "pow," just chicken, zucchini, and carrots. String beans with pork were another high note--the beans crisp and fresh, their grassy taste mellowed by bits of pork--that could have used a little brass, a little jazz, some hot stuff.

All the servings were enormous, over heaps of steamed rice, and we took plenty of food (all the way) home, where we doctored it with fresh ginger, red pepper, and secret ingredients (no ketchup, I promise). It was fine for lunch.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Rice Boxx, 4727 Frankford Rd., 735-0909, fax: 735-0818. Open Sunday-Monday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Rice Boxx:
Pork Dumplings $3.95
Kung-Pao Chicken $4.50
Pork with Garlic Sauce $4.50
Stir-Fried String Beans $3.95

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