John Peterson is finally ready to acknowledge what had become one of the worst kept secrets in Houston’s food scene. The Rice Box, his Chinese take-out concept that began as a food truck before moving to a brick and mortar location in the Greenway Plaza food court, will open its first stand alone location in a former Chirps chicken in The Heights.
Pending final inspections, the restaurant will begin invite-only friends and family service in the next few days and make its soft opening debut January 28, just in time for Chinese New Year.
Like the Greenway Plaza location, the new location’s design by local firm Collaborative Projects (Underbelly, Bernie’s Burger Bus) builds on the Blade Runner meets Big Trouble In Little China aesthetic that Peterson has cultivated since the beginning. Consider the red and blue neon sign with the Rice Box’s RB logo that hangs in a window next to the entrance as the literal first sign of the experience the restaurants wants to give its customers.
“Those are two very impactful films,” Peterson says. “If someone comes up to you and says ‘I want to go to Chinatown,’ and it’s their first time — let’s say you’re just some kid from the ‘burbs. You think neon lights. That’s what we want to bring to the table, that neo version.”
Like at Greenway, the only interior seating is at a counter with a few flat screen TVs hanging above. A small patio will have a few tables, but Peterson expects most people to take their food to-go or order it via a delivery app like UberEats or Favor. Overall, the goal is to get diners in and out quickly, typically for less than $10.
“It’s just like in Blade Runner, man. You go up to the bar to eat and then you rock and roll," Peterson says. “Or like the streets of China. You walk up to a vendor. You eat there and you rock and roll.”
As for what people eat, those who’ve only experienced The Rice Box's food at the truck will be surprised by how much the menu has grown since the Greenway location opened in 2015. The restaurant’s five staple dishes — General Tso’s chicken, kung pao chicken, orange chicken, sesame chicken, and sweet and sour chicken — have been supplemented with more flavors, beef dishes, chow fun noodles, and more. A switch to cooking everything in woks has improved the dishes’ overall quality, too, but The Rice Box remains true to its guiding spirit.
“It’s Chinese take-out. That’s what we’re doing,” Peterson says. “I’m not trying to do Sichuan cuisine. Even though in Asia a lot of those dishes influence each other. We’re doing take-out. That’s what I grew up eating mounds and tons of General Tso’s chicken. That’s what I’m passionate about.”
Diners who choose to linger will find a few craft beers on tap, including Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace saison, 8th Wonder Brewery’s Dome Faux’m cream ale, and Asahi Super Dry (Chinese brew Tsingtao isn’t available on draft). Aged teas, selected in collaboration with Greenway Coffee & Tea, are also available.
The only downside to all these new additions is that Peterson has elected to take the original Rice Box food truck off the streets, at least temporarily (it will still be available for catering); its final service will be Saturday night.
In addition to allowing him to concentrate on running both restaurants, the truck’s familiar parking lot across from Poison Girl will be dedicated to valet service at Chris Shepherd’s soon-to-open restaurant One Fifth. When asked whether it’s the “end of an era,” Peterson quickly responds, “or the start of a new one.” Indeed, being open all day (and above ground) will expose The Rice Box to a wider audience than ever before, and Peterson is clearly excited about the opportunity.
“We’re super amped to be part of The Heights,” he says as the interview concludes. “The community out here is awesome, totally welcoming.”
The Rice Box, 300 W 20th Street; Hours (tentative) 11 am to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday; 11 am to 12 am Friday and Saturday