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Hunan Cuisine offers Chinese dishes not found elsewhere in Honolulu


Cumin lamb

My grandma, from the Hunan province in China, used to cook at the imaginatively-named Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco, a restaurant that The New Yorker, in 1976, called "the best Chinese restaurant in the world." The writer recommended grabbing one of 10 counter seats to watch the two cooks (one of them my grandma) "engage in a virtuoso display of two-handed short-order cooking."

I never developed the kitchen virtuosity of my grandma, but my palate was shaped by her cooking: a love of sharp, pungent and spicy food, the flavors of Hunan.

I've yet to find those sort of flavors in the Chinese food in Honolulu, which is dominated by Cantonese-local hybrid restaurants that tend to blur together after a while. Enter Hunan Cuisine, which opened earlier this year. Despite its name, it doesn't feel distinctly Hunanese, but rather, presents a compilation of spice-saturated Chinese foods, including:

From left: ma-la beef tendon, Sichuan wonton

- Cumin lamb: it may not sound like a Chinese dish, but it originated in the northwest region of China bordering Mongolia, Xinjiang, an area known for its Chinese Islamic cuisine. These days, though, cumin lamb's popularity has spread throughout China. Hunan Cuisine's version carries the muskiness of cumin and distinctive numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns (they impart more of a warm feeling than a searing, unbearable heat) but upgrades the meat with a rack of lamb.
- Sichuan wonton: boiled and dressed in hot chili oil
- Ma-la beef tendon: translucent and tossed in the same chili oil

At this point, though our table is covered in alarmingly red and chili-flecked dishes, nothing is too spicy (I wouldn't mind if it were a touch spicier).

From left: green beans with eggplant, chili oil tripe, griddle lamb

The first page of the menu is overwhelming with 38 dishes, written in Chinese and incomprehensibly translated in English (um, beauty hoof?) and the owners here don't speak much English. With my mom's help, we translated some of them:
- griddle spicy cow hells: tendon
- pickle fillet: fish with the Chinese version of kimchee
- farmhouse pork: a shredded pork stirfy
- salt and pepper coupling clamp: stuffed lotus root (obviously)
- red oil venetian: chili oil tripe

("This is a simple, less-refined version of Hunanese food," my mom sniffed when I sent her the menu. But then, we don't all grow up with world-class cooks as mothers.)

Left: green onion pancake; right: "beauty hoof"

The Chinese for "beauty hoof" translates literally into "hand holding hand." It turned out to be a plate of pig's feet, braised and soft, but it's a difficult one to get through, especially when no one else at the table will help you. 

The "griddle" preparation of dishes at Hunan Cuisine is more like a drier stew, which arrives in a shallow metal bowl, kept warm table side with a Sterno. It's full of goodies such as tofu skin and lamb slices; it looks like it would be packed with flavor, with chilis and kelp in the mix, but it's surprisingly bland.

The lotus root dish never seems to be on the menu; I've been thwarted three times.

Must orders: the cumin lamb, the green beans with eggplant, dry fried and pungent with fermented black bean, and the green onion pancakes, a staple at Chinese restaurants, but here, pillowy soft, almost like mantou, the Chinese steamed buns.

As for the rest of the menu, more than 100 items long of more familiar dishes such as mapo tofu and crab Rangoon to the cryptic "Taiwanese rice box," I'm still working on it.

Hunan Cuisine, 53 N. Beretania St., 599-8838

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