Instead of offering whole pigs, Leo Lee spends three days making porchetta.
Leo Lee, the chef who opened quick-service Cantonese barbecue restaurant in downtown L.A. last September, was born in California and worked at his parents’ restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico, before heading to New York for culinary school. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he returned to California and worked for prolific chef/restaurateur Joachim Splichal, first at Downtown Disney’s Catal and then at fast-casual cafés in L.A.
His time with Splichal, a pioneering fine-dining chef who also runs many quick-service restaurants and caters numerous events, taught him how to be adaptable and see potential in situations where other people saw limitations. That’s part of the reason he knew he could make RiceBox’s tiny space, less than 600 square feet in the Spring Arcade Building, work for his outsized cooking ambitions.
“What I learned from Joachim was that I had to be creative,” he says. “When you’re thrown into certain locations, certain situations, whether it’s a pop-up or something else, stuff will happen. It’s up to you to make it work, to fix it.”
But it wasn’t until after he met his wife, Lydia, that he learned the recipes that changed his life. Lydia laughs when asked about the timeline of when Leo got the recipes that go back to the Cantonese barbecue restaurant her grandfather had in Hong Kong.
“I think we were married,” says Lydia, who runs the front-of-the-house at RiceBox. “‘Before I can give you my recipe …’”
Lydia says she’s kidding but stresses that it’s not like they met and she just handed over the recipes.
“I don’t think it went that long,” Leo says.
“It wasn’t right off the bat,” Lydia says.
“It was closer than …,” he says.
Whenever it was, Lydia ed her uncle, who has a Cantonese barbecue restaurant in Taiwan that uses the same recipes her grandfather did in Hong Kong. Her uncle gave her the recipes. Leo studied them and started to work on modernizing them.
“Part of the modernizing is bringing in better quality,” Leo says. “That’s one thing that was important to us: The pork and the chicken has to be sustainably sourced and local. It has to be something we’re proud to serve.”
RiceBox serves glistening honey-glazed char siu, wonderfully crispy and juicy porchetta, and umami-rich soy sauce chicken that’s made without any MSG or dyes. Leo’s using Duroc pork and Mary’s chicken. Because he isn’t relying on MSG, he’s using lots of ingredients and lots of time to build layers of flavor. He says he knows that a lot of Cantonese cooking is about speed, but he’s happy to take a different approach.
“The char siu takes over two days for us,” he says. “The porchetta takes about three days. There’s a lot of marination. We go through multiple processes of marination and cooking. I do a lot of pre-prepping and pre-cooking and then eventually finish certain things off to order, in order to keep the freshness.”
Because he doesn’t have much space to prep ingredients, Leo is putting in 60-to-70-hour weeks, which is a lot of work for a restaurant that’s open for lunch Tuesday-through-Saturday and for dinner just Wednesday-through-Friday. Beyond marinating meat, air-drying it, and roasting it, Leo is updating Cantonese barbecue with sauces like a ginger-laden chimichurri for porchetta.
He’s making his version of his grandmother’s curry beef stew by mi together different types of curry paste and curry powder with fresh onions, fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, potatoes, and coconut milk.
“We toast it, we stir it, we build layers, and we cook the sauce first to develop a heavier flavor in the curry,” Leo says.
The deeply comforting beef stew also involves braising brisket for six hours. Leo is also making char siu bao and char siu egg rolls with Monterey Jack cheese. He’s working to put roast duck on the menu. He’s practicing how to roll which is something that might soon be added to the menu, too. Again, he’s doing all this in a space that’s maybe 560 square feet. That’s why he’s in the restaurant at 4 a.m.
Leo hadn’t made dumplings before he started rolling them at RiceBox, but he’s confident he knows what he’s doing.
“I’ve made raviolis,” he says. “I’ve made tortellinis. A lot of this is, Lydia pushes me to a different level. She makes me more creative. I’m learning as I go. I ask family members how to do it, and it’s just practice and repetition.”
Somehow, Leo and Lydia also manage to cater big events like a Chinese New Year party thrown by fashion designer Phillip Lim. That was part of an especially busy day, because it was the first day of Chinese New Year and RiceBox was swamped with lunch visitors and delivery orders.
RiceBox doesn’t serve whole pigs like many typical Cantonese barbecue restaurants. There are multiple reasons for this. Selling an entire pig is difficult, and you often end up having to repurpose the pork into other dishes. Plus, not every piece of a whole pig is moist and tender. And Leo and Lydia were concerned at first about how having a whole pig might make RiceBox seem intimidating to some customers.
“We grew up with that culture where we see a whole pig,” Leo says. “It’s very normal. But then we understood downtown may not be as open-minded about it. We didn’t want to scare people off.”
Leo decided to make “visually pleasing” porchetta with pork belly. He rolls the belly the way an Italian restaurant would while using RiceBox’s secret family seasoning blend. The result is slices of flavor-packed porchetta where every bite crackles and every bite is juicy. It’s like the level of Cantonese barbecue.
Lydia says she wasn’t sure that RiceBox would resonate with Chinese people. After all, the restaurant is purposefully doing many things that aren’t traditional. But it turns out that Chinese guests love this restaurant and have been returning again and again.
“We didn’t expect it,” Lydia says. “There’s a lot of Cantonese people who come. There’s people who lived in Hong Kong and come regularly just because they’re like, ‘Oh I miss this. This tastes like Hong Kong.’ There are a lot of Chinese people coming on top, of course, of all the different cultures here.”
This is a Cantonese restaurant, no doubt. But one glance during lunchtime at the diverse crowd of office workers, Instagramming cool kids, and assorted Asian diners of all ages makes it clear that RiceBox is a lot more than that. This is a modern L.A. restaurant that’s beautifully calibrated for 2019. It might evoke childhood memories for many people, but it’s also about creating a new path.
Leo and Lydia would like to open other restaurants, but they say that their little RiceBox downtown will always be their flagship.
541 S. Spring St. #131, Los Angeles