Restaurant review: The Rice Box in Groton

Lately, my wife has morphed, with lycanthropic viciousness, into the Vegetarian Who's Really Impatient With Not Very Many Great Chinese Food Options (TVWRIWNVMGCFO).

It wasn't always like this. For a long time, the Oriental Palace on Poquonnock Road in Groton, under the stewardship of Jimmy Chen, was our favorite go-to Chinese restaurant. When Jimmy moved to a venture in Montville a few years back, new owners kept the same name - but the magic slowly dissipated.

It was a great thing to learn Jimmy's back, with his brother Ken, in the original location with a new Asian restaurant called the Rice Box. Where the Palace was principally a dine-in spot with take-out as an option, the emphasis has flip-flopped. There are still a few tables if you want to eat on the premises - and there's still the iconic stone fountain with its soothing and pastoral sounds - but it looks like the Box is aiming to take advantage of the scarcity of good take-out Chinese in the area. For example, even if you dine in, the food is served in plastic containers and you choose your own soft drink from a cooler.

Consider the idea of custom-designed, tailgate-appropriate combos designed for 18, 28, 38 and 48 people - or in bulk appetizer orders of such inspired fare as jalapeno infused crab rangoon or pulled-pork eggroll. Imagine the fresh breeze effect of stuffing those in your face - instead of Doritos - the next time you're watching the New Orleans Freakin' Saints streamroller down the field.

Anyhoo, yes: we've since been luxuriating in the tasty, solid consistency of the Box.

Despite the clever and innovative appetizer twists mentioned above, they're not trying to reinvent the eggroll at the Box. The menu covers the expected bases. Appetizers include Teriyaki beef or chicken, dumplings, boneless spare ribs, along with soups like egg drop, wonton and hot and sour.

Featured entrees come in beef, veggie/tofu, chicken or shrimp and in such familiar guises as with broccoli, garlic or sweet and sauce sauce, mixed vegetables, Szechuan or Kung Pao style ? you know the drill.

There are also rice and noodle dishes, egg foo young, and representative chef's specials, ranging from orange beef or chicken to baby clams with black bean sauce, coconut chicken and Mongolian Beef. There are also daily lunch specials ($5.25-$5.50) and "anytime combos" ($6.75-$6.95), the former including pork fried rice and a soup choice, the latter with pork fried rice and an egg roll.

On our first visit, after braving the lunacy of Long Hill Road on a Saturday afternoon, we decided to sit down and eat. TVWRI - ah ? my wife had a small bowl of egg drop soup to start ($1.75, large is $2.95) and followed with bean curd Szechuan style ($5.75).

There was a lot of soup, even by "small" standards, and it had a savory flavor and texture like velvet. For the entrée - and all portions at the Rice Box are served with white rice and are easily enough for two meals - soft squares of perfectly chewy tofu were lathered in a teasingly spicy sauce redolent of ginger and garlic. Lurking with sneaky fun were whole red chili peppers, which add further torque and a nice crunch.

I insisted on sampling the egg roll with pulled pork, and was well pleased - although it would be understandable if hardcore barbecue nuts were a bit confused. There was indeed a nice hunk of torn and tender pork packed inside the cabbage-happy roll, with its golden and delicately crunchy exterior, but it's not the sort of hog you'd expect at a North Carolina rib shack. Still: great fun.

I followed up with orange flavored chicken ($10.25). Bite-sized hunks of thigh meat chicken are flour dusted and flash-crisped, then allowed to float in a rich, fusioned broth of orange zest, brown sugar, soy sauce, onion and red pepper. It's tangy, sweet, and hums with toasty heat.

The Rice Box products travel well, too - at least all the way to New London. Here some other tidbits we've enjoyed:

• Broccoli with garlic sauce ($5.75) - Absolutely fresh florets so large they look carved with a machete, cooked just right to maintain that inaugural crunch, and drizzled in a piquant sauce that literally traced the letters G A R L I C on your tongue.

• General's tofu ($5.75) - A veg-ster's take on the General Tso recipe. The punchy tofu rectangles were fried thoughtfully with the crystalline exterior but still toothsome inside, and the sauce, thickened with egg, wrought incendiary with ground pepper pods, and sweetened with sugar, soy sauce and rice wine, was a battle royale of contrasting flavor bursts.

• Pan fried pork dumplings (six for $4.75) - Substantive take on Northern Chinese street vendor food with onion-flecked ground porkballs tucked and crimped inside toothsome dough-shells. Yea!

• Sesame shrimp ($12.95) - An insane amount of medium sized shrimp, flecked with sesame seeds and wok-sizzled in light oil. Truth told, the sauce is very similar to the Tso rendition, but it's still good and that's not the fault of the Rice Box.

It's damned good to have Jimmy and Ken back in town.

The Rice Box

986 Poquonnock Road, Groton
(860) 237-3386

Cuisine: Chinese and Asian standards. Huge portions, solidly prepared with fresh ingredients.

Atmosphere: Chiefly take-out, but there are tables if you want to dine in. Very clean and comfortable, with the iconic stone fountain present from previous incarnations.

Service: Quick and friendly. If you don't know the proprietors, brothers Jimmy and Ken Chen, they'll seem like family by your second visit.

Prices: Appetizers $1.25 to $16.75, soups, rice and noodle dishes $1-$7.25, entrees $5.75-$12.75, combos and lunch specials $5.25-$6.95.

Handicap access: Double door entrance but plenty of room.

Credit cards: All majors, plus you can order and pay online in advance.


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