Noodles are invading Dallas. Finally. Sort of. Since Liberty opened a couple of years ago, those in the know were expecting noodle houses--spots plying hybrid noodle dishes from all over Asia--to limply blanket the city with their tasty, cheap, and allegedly healthy culinary fibers. It didn't happen. Perhaps it's because no one has successfully developed a T-bone noodle bowl or chicken-fried snow peas in soba creamy gravy.
Or maybe it's because the concept wasn't fast and loose enough. Fast noodles are in, it seems, and we will most likely be slurping, tangling, and making fools of ourselves with chopsticks far into the foreseeable future. At least that's what some of the big boys think. There's Big Bowl, a little noodle-quickie developed by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Brinker International that should soon open somewhere in that expansive Okie buffer north of LBJ. The folks who brought us P.F. Chang's China Bistro have just rolled out noodle hybrid Pei Wei Asian Diner (though the name appears to invite toilet humor, it's actually pronounced "pay way") with the help of Tin Star codeveloper Mark Brezinski. Even a few local restaurateurs are planning to get in on the quickie noodle fun with concepts in various stages on the drawing board.
Also entering this speedy Asian-noodle fracas is Rice Boxx Asian Café, a Dallas-based Asian restaurant that aims to inject hip, edgy interior-design elements into the teriyaki. Actually, it's not quite new. Tony Molavi launched Rice Boxx a few years ago, and he was able to develop five units before he sold the concept to former McDonald's franchisee Judson Phillips. Phillips maintained the Rice Boxx menu, added delivery service, and spruced up the interior with contemporary angles and juts and colors of a hue that would easily terrorize a pair of cyclist's spandex shorts. The design hipness drops all the way down to the entrées, which are served in large black bowls. The bowls are placed on tables veneered with a repeating pattern of little cartoon visages with round faces eating something out of a KFC-type bucket with chopsticks.
Rice Boxx Asian Caf
(972) 931-2500. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. $
Egg Roll $1.25
Chicken Dumplings $4.25
Hot-and-Sour Soup $1.50
Grilled Chicken Tenders $2.99
Chicken Noodle Bowl $4.95
Lemon Chicken $4.95
Black-Bean Combo $6.95
And perhaps the bucket is fitting, because Rice Boxx is a true fast-food venue edged with slick, brushed-metal counters and a pickup window from which they yodel your number when everything is ready, just like Taco Bell.
Yet the food is definitely not your typical leaky, special-sauced burger or shredded-cheese shedding taco. Instead you get things like lemon chicken--pieces of coated meat allegedly fried in a wok. They seem like little more than glorified chicken fingers: deep-fried, curvy strips of fairly moist chicken breast. Only these strips sit in a far-too-prolific puddle of lemon oil that seeps into a pile of dry white rice that was a little hard.
Of course, when you extract an amalgam of dishes from cuisines largely known for their assertive flavors and attempt to shoehorn them into a fast-food paradigm, the flavors get wracked with impotence. Take the hot-and-sour soup. It was smooth with a generous carpet of meat scraps hovering along the bottom of the black bowl, but there was no assertiveness in the broth: no appreciable heat, no discernible tang.
The black-bean combo with beef and pork bubbled with more flare. Though the meat was a little dry, the black-bean sauce was sticky smooth and rich with slight heat pricks to keep from performing simply as a viscous blanket. The sauce was cluttered with slivers of white onion and a profligate collection of green bell pepper strips that became overbearing. The plate included a lackluster heap of parched fried rice.
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The look of this restaurant seems aimed at...well, it's hard to tell at whom it's aimed, though it comes off as cartoon tech. The corrugated metal ceiling is a salad of utility arteries snaked with ducts and conduit tinted in burnt sienna. Blond wood paneling and wood chairs presumably give it a Japanese look, and sharply angled soffits are washed in bright yellow and orange. Undulating metal-framed panels of frosted Plexiglas floating under the ceiling serve as spotlight shades.
Nevertheless, the food is largely good, actually grand for a fast-food outlet, but the service, even in this minimalist form, stumbles. The egg roll we ordered--though it was crisp, greaselessly moist, and delicious--didn't arrive until all of our other dishes were finished, and only then after several proddings. Instead of the chicken-dumpling noodle bowl we ordered, we received the chicken-dumpling appetizer. Not that this was bad. Six supple and cleanly moist dumplings, ringing a metal ramekin of soy-based dipping and rested on a bed of shredded raw cabbage, were supple with a tasty, greaseless inner core.
But we would have preferred these dumplings in a noodle bowl, because the noodle bowl dishes were the best offerings we tried at Rice Boxx. The chicken-and-shrimp noodle bowl floated perfectly cooked lo mien noodles, moist chicken, and somewhat mushy shrimp in a clean, soothingly mild stock. The only glaring flaw here appeared on the generous scattering of pea pods, which were severely blemished with black spots.
This Rice Boxx unit in Plano is the first of this concept as interpreted by Phillips. "What we did is make it a little warmer," he says. "It makes it more franchisable." Which is what he has in mind. Phillips says he plans to expand Rice Boxx to Denver, Atlanta, and Seattle while significantly penetrating Texas--a process that might be vastly easier with a few chicken-fried teriyaki bowls or tortilla egg drop soup.