Outside the fast-food box
Asian Box in Palo Alto offers cuisine inspired by Vietnamese street food
If the phrase "fast Asian food" conjures up images of soggy egg rolls and dishes glistening with oil, Asian Box executive chef Grace Nguyen aims to change that perception.
Nguyen, formerly of Charles Phan's acclaimed Slanted Door and Out the Door restaurants in San Francisco, said she plans to pair five-star-quality cooking with fast-food service at a new restaurant in Palo Alto's Town & Country Village. It's set to open next week.
Inspired by Asian street-food carts, Asian Box's stand-up food bar and take-out restaurant will combine fresh, on-the-spot cooking with sustainably raised local ingredients and traditional cooking methods and recipes, Nguyen said. And unlike at other fast-food places, each patron's box meal will be cooked to order, controlling salt, spiciness, fats and other dietary nuances that can affect health and taste.
Asian Box's branding includes the trademarked question "What's in Your Box?" It's a fluid food concept that allows patrons to be in control of their meals, which can lead to any number of pairings and combinations, CEO Frank Klein said.
Patrons start by choosing a base, such as white or brown rice, Asian salad or noodles in savory vegetable broth. Next, they choose main ingredients such as range-raised lemongrass-marinated pork; six-spice marinated chicken; garlic and soy-glazed beef; coconut-curry tofu; or basil-lime tossed shrimp. Then comes the "pile on": steamed or wok-spiced vegetables; then "box toppers," such as crispy shallots, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, peanuts and caramel egg — hardboiled eggs braised in a caramel sauce.
There are six sauces to choose from, including "Gracie's Sriracha," a traditional Vietnamese condiment of dried and fresh chilies and secret ingredients; tamarind vinaigrette; peanut sauce; "Asian Box Street Dust," a blend that includes Szechwan chilies, fennel and cinnamon; and "HotBoxIt," a combination of Thai chilies, tamarind, vinegar and sugar, according to the website, asianboxpaloalto.com. Menu prices begin at $7.25.
"I hope it's going to change the way Palo Alto is going to eat. With Asian food, you can get really healthy, super-fresh and clean flavors," Nguyen said.
Klein said much of the Bay Area's Asian cuisine is "muddled fusion that needs specificity." The restaurant will focus on Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, both of which use ingredients with vibrant flavors.
"It's not a cook-and-hold, like Panda Express. It's cooked to order like at an Asian food stall," he said.
Klein, a Palo Alto resident, owns FK Restaurants and Hospitality, a food-industry consulting firm. His clients have included Stanford University and the National Park Service.
Focusing on healthful eating, he has spoken at the White House to First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" group, which works on solving childhood obesity. He created the concept for Fish & Farm Restaurant in San Francisco, which serves only organic meats and local produce sourced within 100 miles.
In conceiving Asian Box, Klein said he looked around the Bay Area and didn't find the kind of authentic "brightness" that is part of traditional Asian cuisine, especially in the fast-casual arena. Nguyen met Klein through her husband, Chad Newton, chef at Fish & Farm. Newton, who was raised in Mountain View, is also a partner in Asian Box.
Nguyen, 34, said she had known she wanted to be a chef since she was 16. She started cooking professionally at 20. Her mother's baking piqued Nguyen's interest in food, but her grandmother's traditional Vietnamese cooking sparked her passion, she said.
"Her role in the family was to care (for) and feed her 11 children and when she moved to the U.S. she assumed that same role — cooking all morning and afternoon preparing traditional Vietnamese dishes for our family. Her okra soup with crab and pickled eggplant was my favorite. I still search for okra leaves at the market so I can recreate her recipe," she said.
Nguyen found options for authentic Asian cooking outside of home were lacking when she was growing up. "I grew up in Houston, Texas, where they didn't even have sushi."
When she got to San Francisco, the culinary world opened up for her. She worked for Wolfgang Puck at the acclaimed Postrio restaurant as a line cook working on a grill. "I was the only girl working with the big boys," she recalled.
She moved on to Postrio's Las Vegas location as a sous chef, then returned to San Francisco to accept a position as sous chef for Slanted Door, where she became chef de cuisine. She developed a following for her menu specials that celebrated her heritage, she said.
Nguyen said much of her work was in fine dining, but that working for Phan at Slanted Door opened her up to how simplicity could still translate into a sublime experience — and that she could make food that was like what she ate at home.
"Living in San Francisco, you get such amazing produce and you get to be creative," she said.
At Asian Box, on weekends Nguyen might also serve up outside-the-box specials that only those in the know can order. Klein said he hopes to add a little intrigue to Palo Altans' well-traveled palates by serving specialty items that can be ordered using a password, such as "Miss Jones," Nguyen's nickname.
The main menu also offers special items such as spiced and herbed beef "Jungle Jerky," and drinks such as lemon-lime marmalade and Vietnamese ice coffee.
Asian Box will not have indoor seating. Klein said a stand-up counter will serve customers and 40 outside seats will offer a casual sit-down space. Catering is expected to be about 20 percent of business.
The 900-square-foot space will have an open kitchen and is constructed of all LEED-certified, reclaimed products for "a cool, organic vibe" that will include Asian pop music selected by Joel Selvin, former San Francisco Chronicle music critic.
"It won't look like a casual restaurant. We want people to feel it's a neighborhood restaurant," Klein said.
Asian Box is at Town & Country Village, Suite 21, and is scheduled to open on Feb. 17, if it can make it through the approval process by that time, Klein said.