First, pick your rice or noodle. Second, pick one of five proteins. This determines the price of your box, from coconut curry tofu ($7.25) on up to garlic-soy-glazed beef ($8.55).
Step Three is where it gets complicated. Here are your "add-ons," which start with vegetables, steamed or wok-tossed. Proceed next to "box toppers," including bean sprouts, fresh jalapeno, scallion oil, fried shallots, herbs, pickled vegetables and lime.
Part Three of Step Three, the sauces, is critical and easily flubbed. No one will remind you if you order something stupid or leave off sauce altogether, as I did on the long-grain jasmine-rice box ($7.95) with lemongrass pork, steamed vegetables, crisp bean sprouts, excellent pickled radish and a few fresh herbs with a lime to squeeze. It was all very tasty, but needed a sauce to bring it together. The addition of a caramel egg ($0.95) helped.
Asian vegetable salad ($8.55) offered three good-sized and tasty shrimp, slathered in tamarind sauce. We added fresh herbs, fried shallots, crunchy peanuts and crisp, cold bean sprouts.
Everything is made in-house, and it's all gluten-free.
Vegetables are wok-fired or steamed. The difference is, for example, steamed carrots are diced and mushy. Wok-fired carrots are crunchy matchsticks. With broccoli, we couldn't tell much difference between the two.
Another sauce error occurred with chilled rice noodles ($7.65). My composition was good: chicken, wok-tossed vegetables and all the box toppers, except for the "Asian street dust" mix of dry spices instead of a liquid sauce. Cold rice noodles need sauce, not dust.
A side dish of jungle jerky ($2.95) is sweet and fresh, not like eating a stick of wood, as packaged jerky can be.
Spring roll ($3.50) is literally that: one small roll. Ours had been sitting in the case too long, and the rice-paper wrapper went rubbery. The dipping sauce was thin and very vinegary. Peanut sauce is 75 cents extra.
You aren't in Ho Chi Minh City. Also note that there is no tip line on the receipt, which shouldn't be surprising at a place where there's no table service, but explains why prices are higher than street food. Also, the rents at Town & Country must have changed considerably since its resurrection with palm trees and all you can eat.
As I waited — less than five minutes — for my order to be ready, each newcomer was greeted, "Hi! Welcome to the Box!" Cleverly, the doors say "Welcome" in English and Vietnamese on the way in, "Come again" when you leave. It's an attractive little dining area, avocado-colored and some kind of wood that must be sustainable. Note the "bio-based" utensils from TaterWare.com. A tall table inside has seats for eight, but most of the dining here is on the sidewalk or to go.
Asian Box is the first of this concept by executive chef Grace Nyugen, who comes from San Francisco's famed Slanted Door family of restaurants. On a recent weekend, the Palo Alto outlet was well-staffed, with a cook in the main kitchen, two people ferrying around, and two at the counter. Refreshingly, they stepped in for each other as needed.
Had I thought to ask, any one of them could have steered me in the right sauce direction. Besides tamarind vinaigrette and peanut sauce, there's no-oil fish sauce and sriracha. With tangy sweet, umami, hot and sweet, and salty, Asian Box covers all the tastebud bases.
Town & Country Village
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Restaurant hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: shopping center
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: medium
Restroom cleanliness: shopping-center restroom