From the yellow-and-red sign out front, it looks like every other lame Chinese restaurant dabbling in sticky-sweet chicken over rice.

From the yellow-and-red sign out front, it looks like every other lame Chinese restaurant dabbling in sticky-sweet chicken over rice.

The interior of General Tso's on the Northwest Side doesn't give much of a first impression, either. The space is divided into two rooms, one dedicated to carryout and the other a bare-bones dining
room, with checkered tablecloths and some Asian flourishes on the walls and hanging from the ceilings.

Yet, a look at the menu shows General Tso's is a different kind of Chinese restaurant. It is, if nothing else, quite inexpensive, as nearly all of the dishes are $10 or less.

A house-made Chinese sausage ($5), cut into small coins, has the appearance of kielbasa and the texture of andouille and a very mild flavor but unfortunately dry. The garnish of fresh-chopped
cilantro proves to be a little overpowering but the dab of tangy sauce is a nice touch.

Two earthy tastes with disparate textures - duck and bean sprouts - combine for a memorable experience ($9.50). Seasoned with five-spice powder, the dish gets an infusion of chili oil for some
lingering heat.

Knobs of bone-in pork are slow cooked, making the meat ultra tender and savory ($9.50). Paired with a mix of vegetables (bell peppers, onions and mushrooms) and black bean sauce, it has the appeal of a home-cooked meal.

As with many dishes denoted as spicy, it is not. So, those looking for a kick should notify the cashier or server.

In case you were wondering, there really was a General Tso - specifically Gen. Tso Tsungtang, a two-fisted military man from the Hunan province who was known for quashing rebellions. As for his
dish, well, two New York chefs were credited with its invention in the early 1970s. This restaurant does a respectable job on the dish ($9.50): craggy nuggets of deep-fried dark meat dripping the
tangy syrup that made the entree famous.

Butterflied shrimp appear to be freshly battered, fried to golden but not greasy or overcooked. The advertised "chili sauce" tastes like hoisin but is a worthy complement to the largish shrimp, eight in
all, making it well worth the $10 price tag.

General Tso's dabbles into other Asian territory. Worthy Japanese dumplings (shumai, $5) are roughly the size of halved marshmallows holding a delicate, somewhat naturally sweet, crab mixture.

Things get interesting with the shabu shabu ($15 for two), a Japanese hot pot. Sterno lights the metal contraption, which contains a broth teeming with chicken, shrimp, scallops, crab stick, fish
cakes, fried tofu and assorted vegetables. To the side is a nest of dried bean-thread noodles and a fresh egg, whose contents are meant to be lowered in the light stock. The biggest point of interest
is the dark dipping sauce, a paste composed of ground garlic, shallots, chili powder and various seafood elements meant to flavor the dish.

All in all, it gets a passing grade but don't let it cook too long, as ingredients get tough or mushy. Ask your server to extinguish the flickering blue flame.

The kitchen uses thick udon noodles in a Szechuan-style beef soup ($7), a pretty straightforward potage with scallions, baby bok choy and chunks of meat that are often too chewy or shielded in fat. Better cuts of meat would make this a much better dish, even if it costs a few bucks more.

General Tso's is an interesting place but not always consistent. As is the case with so many Chinese restaurants, its menu deserves a closer look.