Remember that early scene in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's great 1982 science fiction movie, where we first see Deckard -- the bounty hunter played by Harrison Ford? He's sitting at an open-air noodle bar in the dark and acid rain of dystopian Los Angeles night, lit by flickering neon, wielding a pair of chopsticks.
That cyberpunky, night-crawling tableau at the White Dragon noodle shop stuck in John Peterson's mind for years. Now it has served as the inspiration for the Rice Box, a new food truck he has opened with Arthur Wentworth.
There are food trucks with visual charm on the Houston scene these days (Bernie's Burger Bus and Good Dog Hot Dogs come to mind), but the new Rice Box stands alone as a stylistic package designed from the wheel covers up by a group of dedicated car nuts.
The down-and-dirty American Chinese-restaurant dishes the Rice Box dispenses in classic cardboard takeout boxes turn out to be surprisingly good stuff. The distinctive world the truck creates with its silvery red-and-black packaging makes the food even more fun to eat.
Standing in a parking lot near Anvil on Westheimer, shoveling down spicy-hot General Tso's chicken with just enough vinegar to cut the sweetness and underline the toasty red-chile heat, I couldn't stop marveling over the truck's quilted vinyl trim, the lacquer-red polish of the paint job, and the entertaining calligraphics. A red paper lantern swayed from an eave created by an opened window, and fluorescent tubes cast a cool sheen.
Owners Peterson and Wentworth did all the work on the truck themselves, together with a small group of car-fanatic friends. Danny Barber and Mike Nguyen, owner of a local car tuning shop, Team Shift Point, helped out with the painting, prepping and tuning; and the vinyl work was done by Greg Lily of Underground Graphics.
On the front of the truck rides the legend "Powered by Rice," a punning reference not only to the rice that anchors each of the truck's meals-in-a-box, but also to the "Ricer" automotive subculture dedicated to tuning and street racing Japanese cars, in the mode of the movie "Fast and Furious."
Peterson is at pains to point out he and his online Mayday Garage group are devoted to the good aspects of Japanese tuning, not the "poor taste" in aerodynamic extensions and reckless street racing the Ricer style sometimes entails. Just ask him: you can get a short course in 21st century car culture along with your nourishing beef with broccoli.
Peterson and Wentworth have more than a passing interest in things Asian. Wentworth lived in Vietnam for five years, working for a Houston area lawyer and later--I am not making this up--starting a Saigon taqueria. That's how much he missed Mexican food while he was away. He speaks fluent Vietnamese.
Peterson studied Mandarin at the University of Houston and during a summer in Beijing, and he maintains that the quickest way to attain fluency in a language is to engage native speakers over beer and karaoke. "You'd be surprised at how well the body adapts to languages over a couple of local drinking games," he says.
About that beef with broccoli dish: I quite liked it, and I even gobbled up a lot of the sesame chicken, despite my fear that it would be too sweet for me. Nope: the sweetness was controlled and well balanced, just as it was in the General Tso's chicken.
If you have a thing for fried food, be sure to check out the "Golden Doomba" special, a boxful of chicken drumsticks (or maybe wings, depending on the day) sheathed in a fluffy potato-starch batter, so that they come off like steamy-hot savory funnel cakes. If the Rice Box guys can figure out a suitable contrasty dip (ginger and black vinegar? some kind of hot sauce?) and add a smudge of salt to the coating, the Doombas could easily become food totems for the night crawling set.
Most of the meals-in-a-rice-box go for $7, and they are highly suitable for a quick takeaway lunch or ballast during a night on the town. So far, as they go through their soft opening phase, Wentworth and Peterson are only working lunches out of the Anvil parking lot, on the Westheimer curve at Windsor.
Eventually they'll extend to night hours as well, and that's when Peterson hopes to install some neon pieces to up the Blade Runner quotient even further. Maybe even a custom white dragon?
In the meantime, you can keep up with the Rice Box on Twitter by following @RiceBoxTruck.