Hunan Cuisine in Chinatown
photo: steve czerniak
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 Honolulu’s Chinese food. The city is dominated by Cantonese-local hybrid restaurants that tend to blur together after awhile.
Enter Hunan Cuisine, which opened earlier this year, introducing spice-saturated Chinese dishes from the Hunan and neighboring Sichuan province.
Ordering here—say, the cumin lamb, Sichuan wonton, ma-la beef tendon—will cover your table in alarmingly red and chili-flecked dishes, though nothing is too spicy. The Sichuan wonton and ma-la beef tendon are slicked in a bright-red chili oil. The cumin lamb carries the muskiness of cumin and distinctive numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns, which impart more of a warm feeling than a searing, unbearable heat. (Cumin lamb may not sound like a Chinese dish, but it originated in Xinjiang, the northwest region of China known for its Chinese Islamic cuisine. These days, though, cumin lamb’s popularity has spread throughout China.)
Hot pots of fish and plates of preserved meats, such as house-smoked chicken and duck and dried beef similar to pipikaula, best express Hunan’s country cooking. The whole first page of Hunan specialties, 38 dishes written in Chinese and awkwardly translated in English, makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into an episode of Bizarre Eats: cow hells, bullfrog, beauty hoof. Some of these, like the beauty hoof, a plate of braised pig’s feet, are difficult to get through, especially when no one else at the table will help you. Turn the page, though, and it’s like you’re at Panda Express: black pepper beef, kung pao chicken, crab Rangoon. Luckily, there’s a middle ground: Hunan Cuisine’s best dishes are not the bizarre or the American, but the ones in between.
Hunan Cuisine, 53 N. Beretania St., 599-8838