During the pandemic, one Downtown experience hasn’t changed much: parking.
Finding a parking spot remains a challenging, nerve-wracking and usually inordinately expensive adventure. If one’s destination is the Spring Arcade Building, with its block-long breezeway of small shops and restaurants, allow some extra time to assay the parking options. It’s never simple. Still, if hunger is the motivation and Cantonese barbecue is the object, RiceBox is worth the extra loop or two around the block.
Chef Leo Lee and his wife, Lydia, opened their tiny bastion of Cantonese culinary invention, RiceBox, in September 2018 as an homage to their families’ three generations of culinary experience. That said, they each come from rather distinct backgrounds.
Lydia was raised in Hong Kong, where her grandfather maintained a well-loved Cantonese barbecue shop for many years. Her uncle still has several barbecue restaurants in Taiwan, employing the family’s generational recipes.
Leo was born and raised in Mexicali, Mexico, where his family ran a Chinese restaurant. He pursued his destiny at the storied Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating, he was employed by Miami restaurants for two years before moving to Los Angeles. There, he worked closely with chef Joachim Splichal and his Patina Restaurant Group.
Leo’s experience at Patina and its diverse portfolio of venues and array of formats and service taught him the value of nimble adaptability. It’s a quality that served him well during the process of rehabbing the 600-square-foot retail storefront at the Spring Arcade Building into a fully equipped kitchen, with gas lines and ventilation. It took nearly two years.
With the recent pandemic pivoting, the couple delivered food to the Westside and Orange County. Leo and Lydia became parents last May. Patient and nimble adaptability has been a key to Leo’s success.
When Leo and Lydia met and discussed a restaurant that would reflect their backgrounds, Lydia called on her uncle in Taiwan for recipes. Leo experimented with the recipes, taking traditional approaches to Cantonese barbecue and adapting them to his liking.
RiceBox starts with a commitment to fresh and sustainably sourced ingredients. Organically raised Duroc pork and Mary’s free-range chicken and duck are the foundations of the menu. However, it’s Leo’s technique — particularly when it comes to Cantonese-style barbecue — that elevates and distinguishes his work from tradition.
The simple menu is portioned into three sections: RiceBox, bao and SnackBox. The RiceBox entrees are served on rice with thinly sliced pickles and a fresh strip of braised bok choy. The stars of the show here are the OG char siu ($11.25) and the porchetta crackling ($13.75). The dishes require several days marinating and air-drying the pork before roasting. The char siu and porchetta take two and three days, respectively.
The porchetta preparation is based on the Cantonese dish siu yuk but employs the Roman technique of porchetta rolling and roasting. It’s worth noting the process. It starts with a 6-pound pork belly slab, sourced from hormone- and antibiotic-free Duroc-breed pork. The meat is richly marbled and has the correct ratio of fat to protein for effective slow roasting. A seven-spice dry rub is applied to the slab, followed by a proprietary wet rub. The meat is then tightly rolled and trussed with twine. The roll marinates for 24 hours before being mounted in a vertical smoker for three to five hours of slow roasting before high heat is employed to crisp the skin for cracklings. The traditional accompaniment of hoisin sauce is replaced with a lighter ginger-based chimichurri here that cuts effectively against the richness of the pork belly. It’s a reinvention of traditions that elicits a dish that is original without subverting the traditional flavors and textures inspiring it.
Grandma’s curry beef stew ($11.75) is a custom blend of curry pastes and powders with fresh potatoes, onions, tomatoes and coconut milk. Combined with a six-hour braise on a brisket of prime beef, grandma will likely approve.
The soy sauce chicken ($11.95) is a take on Hainanese chicken rice with free-range chicken poached in black soy sauce and served with a traditional ginger scallion sauce.
Mapo eggplant ($10.50) riffs on the traditional Szechuan dish, swapping eggplant for tofu with braised shiitake mushrooms and chili oil. Saturdays only, opt for the roasted duck, featuring Mary’s free-range duck dry-aged for five days before roasting and served with a seasonal fruit chutney. Build a custom box with two items for $14.50 or three items for $16.50. Extra add-ons include an organic fried egg ($2), an RBX cheesy pork egg roll ($2.95) or extra vegetables ($3.25).
The bao section of the menu offers five options. Available for the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. lunch, the homemade almond milk buns come two per order. It might also be noted that the buns are flecked with streaks of gray from activated charcoal in the dough. They spring lightly to the touch and yield all the satisfaction of a traditional bun. Varieties include OG char siu ($6.95), made with the same roasted Duroc pork of the entree; a vegan Shrooming bao ($6.95) with a mix of wild mushrooms and vermicelli, served with a custom vegan barbecue sauce; and the RBX bao ($7.95), an original creation fusing roast char siu pork with Monterey Jack cheese, adding a creamy richness to the otherwise traditional bun. The OmniPork! bao ($6.95) is a vegan bun using plant-based pork with shiitake and wood ear mushrooms and napa cabbage.
Finally, the five lighter SnackBox menu options include chili salt and pepper wings ($7.50), six wings treated with Thai chili, garlic and green onions; crispy shrimp dumplings ($8), a six-piece order served with chili-soy sauce; the vegan Impossible dumplings ($9.95) stuffed with Impossible meat, napa cabbage and shiitake and wood ear mushrooms; RBX cheesy pork egg rolls ($8.75), a three-piece order incorporating the char siu pork and Jack cheese combo of the bao; and barbecue pork-fried rice ($8.95), a toss of diced char siu pork, organic eggs, Chinese broccoli and scallions.
The price points are accessible for dishes that are created with authentic care and attention. This food can only be found at the Spring Arcade Building and only at the tiny RiceBox.