Mix-and-Match Meals

Fast food, Bay Area-style

"Fast food" is a dirty word in the Bay Area.

But two new fast-casual restaurants have opened in the same Palo Alto shopping center within weeks of one another, and are aiming to resurrect the maligned genre by reinventing the build-your-own concept.

The first, Asian Box, lured chef Grace Nguyen from her former post at Charles Phan's Out the Door. You build your own box, beginning with rice, noodles or vegetables, then choose among street-food-inspired dishes like coconut-curry tofu ($7) and lime-basil shrimp ($8.25), before topping your selections with sauces and condiments, such as tamarind vinaigrette, peanut sauce or crispy shallots.

With dozens of possible combinations, you could eat here for weeks and never have the same dish twice, though we recommend adding a Vietnamese caramel egg ($1) to every meal.

Tava applies the identical concept to Indian food. Try a "burroti"–the love child of a burrito and roti–or a salad bowl or rice bowl. Select a sauce (tikka or spiced lentil dal) and a protein (grilled chicken, pulled grass-fed lamb, or house-made paneer and garbanzo beans), then add cucumber raita, a slightly spicy cilantro chutney or a fiery mint condiment.

Finally, fast food you don't have to eat in secret.

Asian Box, 885 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650-391-9305 or asianboxpaloalto.com; Tava Indian, 885 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650-321-8282 or tavaindian.com