The fast-casual, gluten-free Asian Box in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village may have just opened last month. But already, lines are forming for this fun, new concept headed by Executive Chef Grace Nguyen, formerly of the Slanted Door and Out the Door, both in San Francisco.
On a recent Wednesday night, when I was invited to come in as a guest of the restaurant, to-go orders were flying out the door.
Unless it’s a nice day, you’ll most likely want to get your food to go, since there’s only one communal table inside the small space. And folks waiting for their food tend to linger right around it. Otherwise, there are a few tables outside, but no heaters.
But since all the food comes in handy compostable containers, it’s a breeze to grab and go.
The concept is simple. You choose the base of your box: Jasmine rice, brown rice, Asian vegetable salad or rice noodles. Then, you pick your favorite protein of the five offered, from six-spice chicken ($7.25) to coconut curry tofu ($6.95) to garlic and soy glazed beef ($8.25).
Next, choose either a mix of steamed veggies or spiced veggies. Choose from among nine different toppings such as fresh jalapeno, crispy scallions or chopped peanuts. They are included in the price, so you can get as many as you like. The only topping that is extra is a caramel hard-boiled egg, which is 95 cents.
You’re not done yet, though. You still have to choose a homemade sauce from six different ones. Three of them are offered at no cost (tamarind vinaigrette, Miss Jones’ Sriracha, and no-oil fish sauce). Three others will set you back an additional cost: “Asian Street Dust” (25 cents), “Hot Box It” (50 cents), and Peanut Sauce (75 cents).
Two sides are also offered: spring rolls (tofu or shrimp; $3.25) and Jungle Jerky ($2.75).
We tried the shrimp rolls, which were fairly standard with their pliable rice paper exteriors. What added punch were the two sauces alongside. The peanut sauce is really creamy and fresh with a back-note of coconut and lime. The Sriracha packs a punch here. It’s far hotter than the Rooster brand bottles you see everywhere. All the sauces are made in-house. The restaurant eventually hopes to sell all the sauces for take-home use, too.
Like most Asian-style jerky, this one is softer on the teeth. Unlike others, though, it’s far more savory tasting. It doesn’t have the over-riding sweet hoisin sauce taste of so many others. Instead, as my husband described, it tasted very beefy, almost akin to thinly sliced meat in classic pho.
As we waited for our boxes to be assembled, we sipped on two house-made beverages. The lemon-lime marmalade drink ($2.95) is tangy, sweet and just a touch salty. It puts Sprite to shame, as it’s far more interesting and complex. The iced tea ($2.95) is a refreshing blend of mint and green teas.
For his box, my husband opted for Jasmine rice, lemongrass marinated pork ($7.75) with tamarind vinaigrette and all the toppers except for jalapenos. The pork was tender, with a nice char to it. Mix everything up and you get a little of this, a little of that, in every mouthful.
I opted for the Asian vegetable salad with lime-basil shrimp ($8.25), spiced veggies, all the toppers and the no-oil fish sauce, as well as the caramel egg that had a sweet soy-savory taste going on.
My three shrimp were heaped on a profusion of veggies that included pickled daikon, carrots, broccoli, shiitakes and more.
Asian Box is more pricey than your average hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint. But local ingredients are stressed, and their freshness definitely shows.
Nguyen, her husband, Chad Newton (also a chef who is a partner in the business), and CEO Frank Klein, hope to open more Asian Boxes in the near future in the Bay Area.
Me? I wish they could put one in every airport around, because this is the type of healthful food you long for when you’re traveling, yet never seem to find.
Other Places to Check Out in the Palo Alto Town & Country Village: Howie’s Artisan Pizzeria
And: Kara’s Cupcakes