Panang Chicken Curry, Red Curry, Coconut custard sticky rice.
Curry! The word sets salivary glands afire with longing. It’s one of the world’s great food export stories; there are 8,000 curry houses in Britain alone.
This venerated cuisine has been around for a very long time. Archeological evidence shows that people have been eating curry for 4,500 years, as far back as 2500 B.C. The word itself probably derives from the Brits’ borrowing of the Tamil word “kari” — which just means “sauce” — for the dizzying array of dishes they discovered in India.
So what we call curry is a set of richly varied, sophisticated, and malleable “sauces” from many countries across Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. Most of the dishes at Curry in the Box on University Avenue, a new sibling of the original Fitchburg location, are Thai-inflected, but the menu adopts flavors from India and even Japan.
A summer roll is the perfect starter on a hot day, and while the rolls could have been more tightly compressed (they started to fall apart after repeated dipping into the excellent peanut-hoisin-chili-garlic sauce), they disappeared in a jiffy. The cucumber salad is also nice: Fresh, crunchy cucumbers are soaked in sweet rice vinegar, sesame and garlic sauce. Skip the limp, lifeless and doughy pot stickers, though. A pot sticker without a crisp folded exterior is just a depressing mush. The crab rangoon is another miss. More Indian-flavored appetizers include samosa and roti.
Curry in the Box has solid lunch specials, with plenty of bang for $7-$8. I enjoyed the beef and broccoli curry with bamboo shoots and a mild red sauce while dining al fresco on a perfect day of 78 degrees with a mild wind ruffling my hair. Curry shares a single patio table with neighbor Starbucks — there’s not much of a view, but Madisonians have to take advantage of nice weather when we get it.
From the dinner menu, a bowl of tom kha coconut milk soup with chicken was underwhelming. There wasn’t all that much of it, and the lime juice, lemongrass, kaffir lime-galangal brew was overpowered by too many onion slices and cherry tomatoes. It doesn’t come close to the best version in town, at the Weary Traveler.
But overall, the menu is strong and doesn’t sacrifice quality for a fast-casual environment.
Dense, robust pad Thai with chewy, thick rice noodles stir-fried with shredded cabbage comes with chicken or tofu; both are excellent. The seasoning was oh-so-slightly out of balance — tamarind and lime bested by a smoky fish sauce — but that barely diminished this classic, topped with bean sprouts, cilantro and ground peanuts, as it should be.
Envy Green Curry — what a name! This green curry sauce is shot through with basil and has a long after-burn on the back on the tongue. The bamboo shoots, peas and onions work well with beef as a textural counterpoint, though that’s also true for tofu or chicken, which, along with beef, are options for most of the curries served here.
Sweet potato curry chicken is good for kids and first-time curry eaters. Sweet potato, broccoli, onions, zucchini and yellow curry-simmered chicken breast with rice is a comfort food sensation. (The default rice is Thai jasmine; brown rice is available for an extra 50 cents.)
And the winner: It’s hard to enthuse enough about the panang chicken curry — chicken breast with a tiny hit of heat and just enough peanut sauce, alongside sliced zucchini and squash, green peas, carrot and bamboo shoots. Ladled over rice, it may be the cure for all our ills. This standout won praise from everyone at the table, young and old, and went so fast we ended up ordering another round.
This location is well-suited to Curry in the Box. Hilldale Mall and nearby Shorewood village have fostered a whole ecosystem of fast-casual to upscale eateries. But while Fuzzy’s Tacos collapsed in the same space, this curry house can certainly challenge the well-established Noodles & Company right across the street.
Curry in the Box
3519 University Ave., Madison, 608-238-1900, 11 am-9 pm daily