Zuo Zongtang, known to Americans as General Tso, has a cultural profile to most of us closer to Ronald McDonald than, say George Patton. Note, I didn't say the more decorous Uncle O'Grimacey or Mayor McCheese—General Tso is not just the leader of crappy Chinese-American food everywhere, he's its clown. But not everyone sees him that way.
Houston's new Maba Pan-Asian Diner gives the General some respect with a version based around a crispy chicken leg and topped with microgreens. But John Peterson and Jenny Vo have been elevating Americanized Chinese fare broadly and Zuo specifically for years, first as a pair of food trucks, then a kiosk in Greenway Plaza's food court. Finally last month, they debuted their first free-standing the Rice Box at 300 W. 20th Street in the Heights. The long-derelict Chirps Chicken & Rice building has gotten an atmospheric neon make-over that Peterson told Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle was modeled on the production design of Blade Runner. Incidentally, the giant food hall Anthony Bourdain plans to open in NYC in 2019 is also styled after the 1982 Ridley Scott masterpiece—Rice Box is way ahead of the curve.
There are a few counter seats and picnic tables on the side, but don't expect the eat-in experience Harrison Ford had at the market he's enjoying when the film opens. The noodles he slurps also seem a bit more, well, Asian than most of what you'll find at Rice Box. But that can be part of the appeal. The sticky General Tso, however, isn't something you'd find at McDonald's. The sauce is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. Diners can select a spice level from "no spice" to "extra spicy." The latter will get you a pleasant kick courtesy of visible chiles, but nothing to draw tears. And the chicken? It's actually chicken, though it's possible to order the dish with tofu or cauliflower as the protein instead. Rice and egg rolls are included, too, each with options. We went with the $1 upgrade of brown rice—though we were tempted by the $2 lo mein noodles—and enjoyed the thin, crisp skins of both the chicken and veggie egg rolls.
But not everything tastes made in the U.S.A. The curry fried rice is served in an over-stuffed cardboard box, bursting just as powerfully with aromatic flavor. Its essence hints of both Thai and Singaporean dishes, but with crisp-edged slices of chicken thigh, blobs of scrambled egg, beans sprouts and cilantro with a nudge of sweet heat, its provenance doesn't matter, we found it hard to put down the $6.99 16-ounce box. The 26-ounce version, just $2 more, might have put us in a coma.
Especially with the added sugar high of the Thai tea. Rice Box has five beers and on wine on draught, but also teas. Nitro Thai tea ($2.99) is dairy-free, but gets its creamy texture from its extra gaseous tap (nitro is typically 70 percent nitrogen to 30 percent carbon dioxide), a revelation for dieters willing to take in some sugar but not condensed or coconut milk that typically makes the milk shake equivalent such a pleasure to drink.
Convenient Asian food improved with the aid of technology? Sounds suspiciously like something from a Philip K. Dick novel. Do Androids Dream of Electric Tea? Maybe, but so will you.