Believe it or not (and trust me, I’m having a hard time believing it at the moment), I’ve been doing this food blogging thing for just four months shy of four years. Of all the people I’ve met while eating my way across the Valley and beyond, both good and bad, a handful have ended up being very special to me. Chefs with passion that inspires, history that fascinates and, most importantly, food that delights and challenges me. Looking back over the years, there is probably one that stands out just a little more than the others, who pops up almost like clockwork through my Facebook and blog posts. As my audience (and hopefully my skills as a reviewer) have grown, so has this chef’s business and menu continued to develop and evolve.
When I first met Phu Tran, I had been indulging in this little hobby of mine for just over a year, about the same amount of time that he had been on the street in his RiceWorks truck slinging fresh, traditional Asian food to grateful office workers. I ended up going back two more times in as many weeks, and the resulting write-up has had over 900 views (it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was for this site back in 2011). Phu was the first chef ever to learn who I was before I actually ended up reviewing him, and he was the first person I interviewed during my ill-advised stint with the Boise Weekly, and believe it or not at that point he was considering calling it quits. Since then, the truck got a helluva paint job, the all-important semi-monthly Food Truck Rally events have allowed many more people to sample his wares, and Phu has begun to focus more on fusion cuisine. All of this has culminated in the opening of an honest-to-goodness brick and mortar restaurant in The Village at Meridian. I considered writing a big, overall retrospective piece on the evolution of RiceWorks, but something tells me that Phu hasn’t peaked yet, so let’s just talk about last night’s dinner instead.
I showed up just shy of two weeks after opening day (I know, I can’t believe it took me so long either!) with my mother, my brother, my niece, and my roommate’s youngest daughter. It wasn’t easy to drag the children away from the ice rink and the colorful fountains, but eventually we entered RiceWorks and had a chance to look at the menu. One of the benefits Phu has added to the restaurant menu is a pretty decent variety of kid’s meals, featuring everything from a variety of teriyaki options to a non-spicy General’s Chicken, even a veggie stir fry is available. The little ones played it safe, choosing teriyaki chicken and broccoli. Phu, and bless him for this, recommended SoBe Lifewater Pomegranate Cherry as a non-caffeinated beverage option for them. Mom, who likes beef but rarely gets it, opted for Bulgogi. I recommended the Spicy Korean Chicken Tacos to my brother (he’s all about the heat), and I chose General’s Chicken, a dish I hadn’t ordered from RiceWorks since my earliest visits to the truck and which I now felt comfortable trying a higher spice level on. And of course I added two orders of chả giò (Vietnamese egg rolls, and this will not surprise anybody who reads my stuff even semi-regularly).
|Chả giò. Where’s my drool bib?|
Remember when I said I don’t think Phu has peaked yet? Well, this dish has. I’ve eaten a lot of things from RiceWorks and absolutely loved pretty much all of them, but nothing else has reached the level of perfection embodied by these crispy little wonders. The only thing that could improve them (and does) is the spicy dipping sauce, which I fell in love with long before I could completely handle it. My brother said that, more than anything he’s ever tried, that sauce is the closest to a perfect level of heat. The kids and Mom were just as fond of the sweet & sour option. I sincerely hope that someday Phu finds a way to make a vegetarian version of these that satisfies him, because right now there is an entire subset of the population that is missing out.
|Chicken Teriyaki Junior Bento|
The young ‘uns sat at their own table nearby so they could stare out the floor to ceiling windows, so I didn’t get to talk to them much about their food. Each left only a few bites of rice uneaten though, so I’m guessing they were happy enough. I can tell you that if you like teriyaki, you owe it to yourself to try it at RiceWorks. The sauce is probably the most balanced I’ve ever come across.
|Spicy Korean Chicken Tacos|
My bro dug his tacos quite a bit, saying that they were reasonably priced and surprisingly complex in flavor, complimenting how the cucumber and cilantro balanced out the heat from the sriracha a little. These things were one of RiceWorks’ earliest fusion dishes and have long been a favorite of mine. I actually discussed them in depth with Phu shortly after he started offering them, before they were a regular menu item. At that point they hadn’t really caught on yet, and he wasn’t sure he should continue serving them. I flat-out pleaded for him to reconsider. I don’t know if that conversation made a difference, but a few tweaks and a few years later, he’s still offering them so you know, just in case, you’re welcome.
All of the rice bowls come with a mix of broccoli, zucchini and cabbage and steamed rice. My lightly-breaded General’s Chicken was served over this, and just like the teriyaki you owe it to yourself to try this dish if you think you know it all. Where a lot of places just seem to add spice to their sweet & sour sauce, Phu uses a more savory ginger-soy blend, and he doesn’t drown the food in it. You taste the chicken and the veggies, with just enough sauce left over to seep down into the rice.
Unfortunately, my picture of the Bulgogi didn’t turn out. I tried a little bite of the Korean BBQ beef and thought the sweetness of it was balanced out nicely by the kimchi included with the dish, but then I turned my attention back to my own food. It was a little spicy for Mom, whose tolerance is even lower than mine used to be, but I still want to try it myself. It will be an internal battle the next time I’m standing in front of that menu and trying to decide between the Bulgogi and the Thai Yellow Curry.
Looking back over this, I seem to keep using the word “balanced”. This is key. Phu is still a young chef, but remarkably experienced and with a very chill kind of personality. He has many years left with which to hone his craft and I’m sure he will do just that, but he has already figured out how important harmony is in his kitchen and in his flavors, and how to achieve it. Never have I had anything he’s cooked and thought “It’s good, but it’s too/not enough (insert adjective here)”. Everything he does is about love. Love for his food, his heritage, and for the customers he shares it all with. When we sat down for the interview I mentioned earlier, he knew I was postponing dinner to talk to him and he brought me a homemade Vietnamese cold cut sandwich. It wasn’t anything he served at the truck, and it had nothing to do with the article I was writing. He just did it to be nice. That anecdote might say more about the man than anything else I can relate to you.
Food: I think I’ve done enough gushing for one review. A+
Value: It’s going to cost a little more than you would pay at a Chinese restaurant. It’s worth it. A
Service: I’m biased, so take this with a grain of salt if you like. A+
Atmosphere: The same spartan/modern aesthetic that Cacicia’s has, which makes sense since the buildings are pretty much identical and I’m sure the landlords are a little strict, but the glass walls and the views make up for it. Personally, I dig it. A+
Final Grade: A+