Tucked along a main route into downtown Toledo is actual, unadulterated joy.
There is joy upon the first smells inside HotBox Bistro, a restaurant proudly pushing forward the city’s few Cajun food options. There is joy permeating staff banter, as workers prepare food that is equal parts delicious and creative.
And to my mind, it all shines in a single sandwich. Order the shrimp po’ boy.
I first visited HotBox for a solo lunch. Many of the booths lining this sparse, one-room restaurant were empty. As pleasant as HotBox is, do not expect much decoration along the walls. Patrons trickled in and out to collect their carry-out orders. Personally, I appreciated the extra space and time to enjoy my meal.
Address: 332 N. Erie St.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Average Price: $$
Credit Cards: MC, V, D.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; closed Saturday and Sunday
I quickly glanced over the menu before knowing the po’ boy ($13) would be best. This sandwich — fried shrimp and peppers alongside lettuce and tomato on a toasted hoagie roll — is fantastic. Each ingredient feels assembled with care. The shrimp, plump and fresh, are generous in number throughout. A light breading on the pepper adds a crunch to the surprise kick.
It is a rarity that I write about a restaurant’s fries in any detail. It is a rarity they are this good. Hand-cut, hot, and of perfect consistency, HotBox fries included with the po’ boy sandwich are more than potato accompaniment. They are a worthy complement to a heavy meal.
Two colleagues joined me for my second trip. They, too, appreciated the restaurant’s approach.
My dining companion’s Alfredo pasta was a sizable portion of tender penne noodles and marinated bell peppers, mushrooms, and onion slathered in a creamy sauce.
Customers have the option of chicken, shrimp, or both, and my lunch companion opted for shrimp ($14). The food came out piping hot. It was served with a slice of thick garlic bread, which rounded the meal out nicely.
While the sauce was on the thin side, it did not taste watered down. It was instead perfect for bread-dipping.
If the dish lacked in flavor, it was the patron’s fault, my colleague said. She expressed wariness of spicy food, and so ordered the Cajun spice mixture on the side, rather than mixed right in. Spice or no spice, each bite was satisfying.
A second companion ordered Uncle Mike’s gumbo ($5 for a cup or $8 per bowl).
Chicken, peppers, onions, and celery are served over a bed of rice. The ingredients simmer in a pool of homemade gravy. He added sausage ($1 more) to his gumbo to intensify the flavor of an already savory dish.
The gravy is the glue for this medley of ingredients and really brings it to life. While the dish is tasty, more spice would have made this New Orleans culinary staple feel more Southern, more authentic.
The filling gumbo came with a wonderfully thick slice of cornbread.
Owner and head cook Keitha Sheares told The Blade last September that HotBox serves food influenced by her life. “I’m originally from Los Angeles, my dad’s side is from Florida, and Mom’s family is here,” she said. “I traveled to all three places all my life, so I kind of mash all three together.”
Whatever it was that brought about the Asian pineapple bowls is more than welcome. A pineapple split lengthwise is filled with rice, sauteed peppers and onions, and a sweet sauce. Seared chunks of pineapple are placed on top. I chose the shrimp addition ($15). The layering of items with both sweet and savory receiving their due was executed well. It would have been worthwhile for the presentation and uniqueness alone.
In short order, HotBox has carved out a niche. The restaurant quickly and significantly boosted the Cajun cooking available in Toledo. It brought another quality place to eat in downtown Toledo. That and a po’ boy are worth the visit.
Contact Bill of Fare at: firstname.lastname@example.org.