Lunch for $10 or Less: Manchurian Rice Company

Lunch for $10 or Less: Manchurian Rice Company
The Kung Pao Chicken from Manchurian Rice Co. is stir-fried to order. (John Lindner, Baltimore Sun)

What impressed me first about the Kung Pao Chicken ($8.99) at this new Harbor East eatery was its boisterous fire. The pepper heat comes up front, with an intensity many Asian restaurants won't offer unless you ask for it.

The Kung Pao declares the kitchen is not afraid to scare off wobbly Western palates, which are no doubt less timid than they used to be. Manchurian's heat in this dish is pleasantly risky.

The consistency of the bean sauce carried nice smoky notes, and there's no question chilies were at work. You could see signs of them everywhere in the mix.

I also detected the strong presence of garlic, both on the tongue and in the sauce itself, coarsely minced and still crunchy. The heat was intense enough to make me question whether it was indeed garlic or a spice combo that was doing a good imitation, but garlic squares with the Western version of this dish and Manchurian's liberal use of it is another sign of the kitchen's daring. And it tasted good.

The chicken competently conveyed the sauce. Cut to 1/8-inch-thick slices, it was, as all stir-fries here, wokked to order. Big chunks of onions also carried the sauce well, while maintaining firmness and establishing a dominant presence. Same with the red bell pepper chunks that also added color flair.

Along with a fear of getting stuck with a bland sauce, peanuts are another reason I generally steer clear of Kung Pao. First, they're a pain to grip one-at-a-time with chop sticks. Life and lunch time are both too short.

Manchurian includes the peanuts, but does so judiciously. There were enough in this dish to add contrast and help check the heat.

For a place that bills itself as a rice company, Manchurian's white rice was competent and nothing more. I stuck with the steamed white rice that comes with the dish at $8.99. For another couple bucks, you can get the dish with fried rice. Manchurian offers four fried rice choices.

Whether you dine in or carry out, your orders are packed in sturdy plastic covered containers. If you do dine in, your seating options include a few small tables on street level and many more in the higher capacity upper room. The upstairs dining room has the perfunctory feel of a car dealership waiting room that, along with the carry-out containers, makes you wonder if Manchurian isn't expecting many sit-down customers. Or they could simply be dealing as efficiently as possible with the relatively small space at their disposal.

Judged strictly on carry-out standards, Manchurian Rice Co. should easily rank among first choices for the area.

Manchurian Rice Company

Where: 1010 Aliceanna St., Baltimore

Contact: 443-438-3528

Lunch hours: 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday

Lunch entrees: $6.99-$9.99