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Sweet Spot

Downtown's Rice House offers some great food—and some not-so-great food

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If the good folks at Rice House China Thai would ease up on the use of sweeteners and brighten up the décor a bit, they might be on to something.

Rice House opened on Congress Street in late 2010 to almost no fanfare whatsoever—even though the place introduced proper Thai and Chinese food to the ever-expanding downtown-Tucson restaurant world. I'd actually forgotten about the place, until I happened to walk by it several weeks back.

Even though Rice House's one-year anniversary has come and gone, it's almost impossible to find any useful information about the restaurant online. Outside of several generally unhelpful reviews on sites like Yelp, and a listing on the Downtown Tucson Partnership website, Rice House has no online presence (at least that I could find). It's 2012. How can the place not have at least a Facebook page?

Therefore, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into Rice House for the first time. Here's what to expect when you walk in: food made with fresh ingredients that ranges from mediocre to downright fantastic, served in an atmosphere that is dim and slightly industrial. (More lights and some sort of quiet music would help.)

Don't be fooled by the large menu board and the counter with steam tables, which make the place look like a locally owned version of Panda Express: Rice House offers a full menu of both Chinese and Thai fare. The lunch specials (all of which are also offered during dinner for a couple of bucks more) are nice deals: A Thai dish plus white rice, an egg roll and either hot-and-sour or egg-drop soup will set you back $5.99 (or $7.99 during dinner and all day Saturday). The Chinese lunch specials range from a downright-cheap $4.49 to $5.99 ($6.49 to $7.99 for dinner and all day Saturday), depending on whether you desire one entrée or two, and whether you want plain ol' white rice, lo mein or fried rice. A small number of basic sushi-themed lunch specials are also on the menu ($6.99 to $8.99).

During our lunch visit, Garrett and I stuck to the Thai lunch specials. Garrett ordered the pad Thai with shrimp ($1 extra), along with hot-and-sour soup, while I picked the tom yum soup with chicken, along with the egg-drop soup. Garrett got the short end of the figurative stick: My soups were both lovely—the egg drop was silky and eggy, and the tom yum was one of the best versions of the soup I've ever had, thanks to the presence of fresh ingredients, just enough lemongrass and some citrus that perked up all of the other flavors. However, Garrett's hot-and-sour was way, way too sweet; there was a nice, hearty soup in there somewhere, but it was obscured by sweeteners. Meanwhile, his pad Thai was bland. There was no depth to the dish, outside of the six shrimp.

Turns out that the overly sweet hot-and-sour soup foreshadowed our dinner visit, which happened on a recent Friday with friends John and Beth. When we arrived, we had the L-shaped room to ourselves (although several other parties arrived later). While customers order at the counter during lunch, Rice House offers table service at dinner.

It was tough to choose among so many entrées; Rice House offers all of the Thai and Chinese standards one would expect, along with some special dishes, too. As starters, we ordered the shrimp spring rolls ($5) and the Thai beef salad ($7). For entrées, Garrett picked the Penang curry with beef ($9.99), while Beth got the pad prig king ($8.99), a "dry deep red curry," with chicken. I finally settled on the sesame chicken from the Chinese side of the menu ($8.99); John joined me on the Chinese side by ordering the pork fried rice ($6.50).

We also ordered several soups. I decided to get a cup of hot-and-sour to see if the over-sweetened cup that Garrett had during our lunch was a fluke; nope, it was not a fluke. Garrett's cup of tom kah gai ($5) was not as inappropriately sweet as the hot-and-sour, and was pretty good overall, but it would have been better with just a touch more depth, and a touch less sweetness.

Then came the entrées—and the sweet train kept rolling along. Garrett's curry was creamy and had a lot of wonderful flavors, but it would have been better with a touch less sweetness. Then there was my sesame chicken: Yes, sesame chicken is supposed to be a bit sweet, but this version almost could have been classified as a dessert. The flavor was cloying, which was unfortunate, because the chicken was moist and had a welcome crispiness on the outside. I tried to use the small group of broccoli sprigs (more broccoli would have been most welcome) and the accompanying fried rice to cut the sweetness, to no avail.

On the other side of the table, thankfully, John and Beth were enjoying their dishes. John's fried rice was tasty and packed with an ample amount of pork; meanwhile, Beth's pad prig king was downright fantastic. It had a subtle heat, along with a lot of flavorful chicken and perfectly prepared green beans. It may have edged out the tom yum soup as the best thing I tried on my two visits.

Thus, I am torn on Rice House: Some dishes can send one veering toward a diabetic coma. However, when the food's good, it's really good—and I'll be back to get some of that tom yum soup and pad prig king with chicken, to go.

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