Eat Local: Asian Box

March 20, 2015 § 3 Comments

I realized yesterday that I’d put off writing about one of my Birthday Week Indulgences because of the hook. (For non-writers, “the hook” is the attention-grabbing first sentence of an article or post. A good hook creates enough intrigue or curiosity to engage the reader and keep him or her reading.)

Every time I sat down to write about this place, which is one of my favorite lunch spots, I swear I could hear a bunch of 12-year-old boys guffawing and snickering in the background. Why? The restaurant’s name, of course. Yesterday SF Eater posted a brief article addressing exactly the thing I was dealing with. So thanks to SF Eater, I’m pushing forward.

For my Friday Birthday Week Indulgence I ate Asian Box. And I’d do it again.

Yeah, just try not to snicker like a 12-year-old

Yeah, just try not to snicker like a 12-year-old

Ok, there, I said it. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what really matters: the experience.

“The Box” or “Box” as the three-year-old business refers to itself, is headquartered in Palo Alto, where it opened its first location (they’re now up to five total, including two in Southern California). The restaurant style is casual and family-friendly; customers are greeted with a rousing “Welcome to Box!” from the counter staff when entering the small restaurant.

Asian Box’s niche is Vietnamese-style street food, paired with California influence. Ingredients are free of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, and sourced locally whenever possible. Not only is Asian Box following a model in which they’re part of the local food system, but they’re also looking out for the environment. The containers in which food is served are either compostable (box bottoms) or recyclable (plastic tops and containers).

So, how can you get yourself some Asian Box? In the 650 you can find an Asian Box restaurant in Palo Alto or Mountain View. Place your order at the counter “for here” or “to go” using the above-counter menu, which makes ordering a box your way as easy as 1-2-3-4. If you’re indecisive or overwhelmed by too many possibilities, try one of the four House Favorites. I’ve noticed that “The Workout” seems to be a popular choice with regulars at the Palo Alto location.

Four easy steps to a fresh, fast meal customized to your taste

Four easy steps to a fresh, fast meal customized to your taste

If you’re so hungry that you need to get something in your mouth ASAP, or are just looking for a grab-and-go option, the cold case at the counter has pre-packaged Tofu Spring Rolls, Shrimp Spring Rolls, and Green Papaya Salad, as well as bottled water and non-alcoholic drinks. FYI, the rolls are about 3″ long — just enough for an appetizer, snack, or very small lunch.

Tofu Spring Rolls from Box's cold case: tofu, vegetables, rice noodles in a rice paper wrapper. Served with cabbage salad and dipping sauce.

Tofu Spring Rolls from Box’s cold case: tofu, vegetables, rice noodles in a rice paper wrapper. Served with cabbage salad and dipping sauce.

When your box order is ready, counter staff will call out your order number; usually the wait is about 10 minutes. (Note that wait times can be longer during core mealtimes.) Takeaway orders are packaged with utensils and napkins so that you can be on your way. “For here” orders at the Palo Alto location are delivered to your table by friendly Box staff — which is a nice touch if you want to grab an outside table and watch the usual T&C parking-lot shenanigans while waiting for your food.

What I love about Asian Box (hehe) is that they offer something for every diet. Whether you’re paleo, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, carnivore, whatever — Box has got you covered. And you can change it up every time! My current favorite combo is rice noodles with tofu, caramel egg, all toppers — except bean sprouts (yuck) and jalapenos (overkill with the sriracha, in my opinion) — peanut sauce, and sriracha sauce on the side.

A closeup of my box

A closeup of my box

The vegetables are fresh and crunchy, the texture of the tofu is firm, but not hard, and the toppers and sauces add so much flavor to the mix. Ok, so the peanut sauce is green, but it’s still got that flavorful, sweet-spicy-salty thing going on. (And, by the way, all of Asian Box’s sauces are made fresh, on-site. No bottled or pre-made sauces from these guys!)

As indulgences go, this is one I won’t limit only to birthdays. In fact, writing this post has given me a craving for Asian Box, so I might have to venture out to the Town & Country this weekend for some satisfaction.

Have you tried Asian Box? Wanna share your experience? Tell all in the comments below or on 650Food’s Facebook page, where you can also check out photos of the other Birthday Week Indulgences.

Details
What: Asian Box
Where: Town & Country Shopping Center, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone: 650-391-9305
or
42 Castro St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Phone: 650-584-3947
Hours: 11am–9pm daily
Parking: Free lot

Waste-Less Wednesday: Peanut Sauce

March 18, 2015 § 4 Comments

Last Friday’s Birthday Week Indulgence was lunch at one of my go-to “quick food” spots in the 650: Asian Box. (More about that some other time.) While I was watching the locals fight it out for lunch-time parking spots in the ridiculously crowded Palo Alto Town & Country shopping center and digging into my usual — rice noodles with tofu and vegetables, topped with peanut sauce and sriracha — I was thinking about how essential that peanut sauce was. That my Box lunch wouldn’t be nearly as craveable without it (at least not enough to get me to brave the Town & Country parking lot on Friday afternoon). That I’m ambivalent about peanut butter, but will happily eat peanut sauce. Peanut sauce is delicious and complex, with that umami thing that keeps me coming back for more.

So, come Sunday afternoon when I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to make space in my jam-packed refrigerator (and which kitchen experiments I need to sacrifice to the compost bin), I come across not one, but two containers of DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter. Oof, I’m not eating that any time soon. Unless! Why not make my own peanut sauce? I gathered up a few condiments from the refrigerator (confession: I love condiments and probably have waaay too many), a container of simple syrup (leftover from making limoncello), and olive oil.

The version I came up with isn’t “authentic,” but it is easy to make, flavorful, and adds some punch to a quick meal of noodles and steamed vegetables. The fun in making this sauce from scratch was using ingredients that I had on hand and thinking of them as building blocks of flavor. How was I going to balance sweet, tart, spicy, with that umami flavor that makes peanut sauce so interesting and craveable?

First things first: I had to thin the peanut butter, which mean adding some oil. Olive oil is my default for savory cooking, so I’d added it to the peanut butter, almost without thinking. (Later it occurred that peanut oil might have been a better choice, but oh well.) I added a touch of sesame oil for variety and to complement the roasted peanut flavor. That left me to figure out — by trial and error — how to add complexity while balancing the sweet, tart, and salty components. I started by adding some ponzu sauce, to hit the notes of sweetness, saltiness, and tartness all at once. From there I adjusted the sweet/spicy combo by adding some simple syrup and some sriracha. Finally I added some fish sauce for its umami quality. Fish sauce on its own? Not so great. But it really does add that final oomph to a sauce.

I’ve been trying not to slather this sauce on every meal this week, but it’s my new favorite condiment. Give it a try, and feel free to tweak the flavor components to your taste — that’s the best part of DIY!

Recipe: Peanut Sauce
Yield: About 1/2 cup

While this sauce is an easy pairing for Asian-style noodles, such as soba or mai fun, you can also use it as salad dressing or a dipping sauce for grilled vegetables, chicken or tofu. Need more sauce? Double the recipe!

Ingredients:

2.5 ounces DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter (or your favorite brand of natural, crunchy peanut butter), warmed/softened in the microwave on high for 15 seconds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon simple syrup
1 tablespoon ponzu sauce
1½ teaspoons sriracha (or to taste)
1 teaspoon fish sauce (or to taste)

Peanut sauce ingredients

Peanut sauce ingredients: ponzu, sriracha, sesame oil, fish sauce, olive oil, crunchy peanut butter, and organic simple syrup made with cane sugar

How to:

  1. Place the peanut butter in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Add the olive and sesame oils to the mixing bowl and mix with a fork, combining until smooth.
    Keep stirring until all of the oil has been combined with the peanut butter. The mixture will appear thinner and lighter colored, but don’t worry, it will thicken up when you add the remaining ingredients.

    Olive and sesame oils combined with the peanut butter

    Olive and sesame oils combined with the peanut butter

  3. Add the simple syrup and ponzu sauce to the peanut butter and oil mixture, stirring in a tight center (creating a whirlpool-like effect).
    Continue stirring until the mixture is smooth. You’re creating a water-in-oil emulsion by adding the liquid simple syrup and ponzu sauce. The result is a lot like what happens when you make a chocolate ganache.
  4. Add the fish sauce and sriracha to the sauce, mixing thoroughly to combine.

    Peanut sauce

    See how easy that was? Peanut sauce!

  5. Taste the sauce and adjust the sweetness, saltiness, and spice to your taste by adding a bit more simple syrup, fish sauce, or sriracha.
    Take it easy with the fish sauce; a little goes a long way.
  6. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

    final-plate2

    Try this at home: Brown rice mai fun noodles with steamed flowering
    broccoli, shredded rainbow carrots, minced fresh basil, fresh peanut sauce
    and a squeeze of lime

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