On the surface, RiceBox may look like a typical Cantonese barbecue shop. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll realize that the ingredients used at RiceBox are anything but traditional. RiceBox is a fast-casual restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that uses only quality organic ingredients, as well as ethically sourced, sustainable and hormone-free meat. The char siu (barbeque pork) they use is made using Duroc pork, a heritage breed that is said to be more flavorful and juicier than your standard pork. It’s not doused in the typical bright-red sauce many diners are accustomed to. In place of the traditional crispy roast pork, RiceBox serves triple-roasted porchetta that is made with touches of Italian and Cantonese cooking styles. They are one of the rare restaurants in Los Angeles embracing Cantonese culinary traditions, while modernizing it with a healthy twist.
Owner and chef Leo Lee runs RiceBox with his wife, Lydia. Both Leo and Lydia’s families come from long lines of restaurateurs. Leo grew up in his grandparents’ Chinese restaurant in Mexico before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He subsequently worked in and managed restaurants in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. Lydia’s grandfather owned a well-known Cantonese barbecue shop in Hong Kong for over two decades. Her uncle still owns restaurants in Taiwan that use the same family recipes that have been passed down over three decades. These are the same recipes that Chef Leo uses and alters to fit his vision for RiceBox.
“The main thing that sets us apart is our ingredients and our commitment to no MSG. We do everything we can to omit the MSG, but still attain a great taste that is just as good as the traditional dishes,” said Chef Leo.
RiceBox specializes in rice boxes with Cantonese barbecue, hence the name. There are four kinds of savory meats, a vegetarian option, and a gluten-free option in the permanent rotation. The boxes are served alongside Chinese veggies, pickled radish and pickled cucumbers. Choose from the char siu, which is slow-cooked and glazed with honey; the crispy, triple-roasted porchetta Duroc pork belly; a gluten-free, six-hour braised curry beef stew; the spicy, vegetarian mapo eggplant; or the soy sauce chicken topped with ginger scallion sauce. The char siu is marinated overnight before it is slow-cooked in a smoker and tenderized. Chef Leo then chars the pork for 30 minutes to lock in flavor before glazing it with honey. On Saturdays, there’s a specialty roast duck made with Mary’s free-range duck that is air-dried for five days and topped with a seasonal fruit chutney that Chef Leo makes.
“It’s like a cross between East meets West. We use Eastern ingredients, meets Western cooking style. A lot of the application I’m doing is more European or Western-style of cooking. For example, my roast duck is cooked more pinkish or reddish, but that’s because that’s how Europeans and Americans cook their duck. They don’t cook it all the way through. They want it to be rare to medium rare,” says Leo.
RiceBox is still comfort Cantonese food, but it’s definitely a far cry from what you would expect from the traditional shops in the San Gabriel Valley. Although the restaurant has only been open for a year, their legion of fans comes from near and far to try their unique and healthier take on Cantonese barbeque. Ultimately, what you eat at RiceBox will taste very similar to and reminiscent of classic Cantonese barbeque. But at the same time, there’s also something very different about it, because Chef Leo makes the sauces and seasonings onsite without any MSG. Take the crispy pork, for example. Chef Leo uses the traditional five spice seasoning, but pairs it with his homemade chimichurri sauce.
“(Our) crispy pork skin isn’t traditional, but you can still tell what it is inspired from,” he says. “You see where we pay homage and respect to our family’s recipes. It's just that everything has been applied a little bit differently.”
Although RiceBox’s main menu is dedicated to barbeque, the Lees ultimately find themselves serving as ambassadors for Hong Kong and Cantonese cuisine in general, since the cuisine has been eclipsed by other popular types of Chinese foods these days, like the mind-numbing spice of Sichuan food.
Chef Leo also hand-makes bao (buns) with fun fillings. The RBX Bao is a beautiful gray-and-white marbled almond milk bun filled with char siu and Monterey Jack cheese. There’s an OC Char Siu Bao with slow-cooked Duroc barbecue pork and onion, as well as a vegan Shrooming Bao made with wild mushroom mix, vermicelli, onion and vegan barbecue sauce. The menu frequently rotates with new dishes that are commonly found in cha chaan tengs, a type of affordable restaurant commonly found in Hong Kong known for their Hong Kong-style Western foods.
Other snacks at RiceBox include chili salt-and-pepper garlic chicken wings, cheesy char siu egg rolls made with Monterey Jack cheese, crispy shrimp and taro dumplings served with homemade chili soy sauce, barbecue pork fried rice and even Hong Kong eggette waffles made with organic eggs. One of the current best sellers is the “Impossible” Meat Dumplings made with Impossible meat, napa cabbage, shiitake and wood ear mushrooms, and vermicelli. The Lees have jumped on the meat-alternative trend and provided a no-beef, plant-based option for more health-conscious diners.
“Ultimately, our goal is to spread the food and culture of Hong Kong and Cantonese barbecue. There aren’t many people doing Cantonese barbecue and certainly no one doing it the same way we are. We love Hong Kong and want to spread its culture through food, which isn’t just limited to barbecue,” said Lydia.
Rice Box is located in downtown Los Angeles at 541 S Spring Street #131, Los Angeles Calif., 90013.