Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - December 7, 2012

Fast but not flashy

Spice Kit follows Asian street-food trend, but without a lot of spice

by Sheila Himmel

Where frozen yogurt fizzled on Palo Alto's increasingly food-focused California Avenue, Spice Kit sizzles. No wonder. Here's a meal that's quick, clean and cost-effective, reliable for in-store lunch or take-home dinner.

The growth of fast casual Asian street foods must be giving McDonald's executives another reason — beyond trouble on Wall Street and in Europe, and management shakeups — to be shivering in their golden arches. As we learned in the recent national election, when demographics change, it matters. More Americans come from or have visited Asian countries, and younger people, particularly, are more than willing to expand their food horizons.

Along comes Spice Kit, brainchild of Stanford grad Will Pacio, with a Vietnamese-inspired menu featuring organic tofu and hormone-free meat.

Like Asian Box in Town & Country Village in Palo Alto, Spice Kit works on the Chipotle model. Depending on which of four proteins you pick, you come away with a drink and a satisfying salad, sandwich, wrap or rice bowl for around $10. Side dishes top out at $5 for two Kurobota pork belly buns, $2.95 for one. They are cheaper (and smaller) than those at the San Francisco-based The Chairman food truck, but next to the food truck's steamed pork belly buns with turmeric pickled daikon and green shiso ($3.75), just a tad generic.

Which is my problem with Spice Kit altogether. The banh mi, a much-beloved Vietnamese sandwich, hits bold spice notes with jalapenos and cilantro, but the toasted baguette is just very white-bread. The four proteins are inoffensive. Five-spice chicken ($6.90), beef short ribs ($7.95), roasted pork ($7.75) and organic tofu ($6.75) won't challenge anybody's taste buds.

My favorite format is the salad, a bed of organic baby lettuces with cucumber slices, sticks of crunchy jicama, sweet mango and spicy peanuts. Sesame vinaigrette brings it together nicely. Meanwhile, ginger-peanut slaw ($1.95) is very liquidy, softening the peanuts.

Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.95) suffered from the coffee's being premade. The brewed coffee cups were sitting on the counter, under their authentic individual-cup Vietnamese coffee brewers (called a phin).

Palo Alto got the second Spice Kit, after San Francisco. Certainly there will be more, despite the aw-shucks website: "We're just a couple guys who've worked in some great fine dining kitchens, like per se, The French Laundry, and The Ritz Carlton Dining Room — cooking complicated food all day long." That is, these guys, including Executive Chef Fred Tang and Chef Ming Lee, have worked at the finest restaurants in New York, the Napa Valley and San Francisco.

The site goes on to say: "Being French-trained chefs, we utilize the best techniques — from the sourcing of our ingredients to the way we pickle our vegetables. We believe this makes everything taste better."

We believe it, too, but come on, guys. Spice Kit has "marketing strategy" written all over it. And good for them. Now that Palo Alto has a Spice Kit and an Asian Box, what's next for compact, fast casual restaurants marrying Asian street foods to fresh California ingredients? (Spice Hut is taken by an Indian outfit.) May we suggest: Spice Box and Asian Hits.

Spice Kit

340 S. California Ave., Palo Alto

650-326-1698

spicekit.com

Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun.11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street and parking lots

Highchairs: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Catering: yes

Takeout: yes

Noise level: medium-loud

Restroom cleanliness: Excellent

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