Somewhat stealthily, Chinese restaurants are becoming some of the city’s best. Counter Culture recently identified Bamboo Pavilion in Bensonhurst as one example, tendering perfectly executed Sichuan fare of superior delicacy. Now, like a bull escaping from a pen, Hunan House has spectacularly debuted among the Korean restaurants of Northern Boulevard. It may be the first authentic Hunan restaurant in town, though Manhattan places like Hunan Pan and Hunan Balcony have been fecklessly name-checking the province since the 1970s, while offering little that was identifiably Hunanese. The province lies south of the Yangtze River, east of Sichuan, and northwest of Guangdong.
“Hunan cooking is becoming popular again among the Chinese living here,” our wise waiter told us. “They’re beginning to think well of Mao again—that is part of it.” I’d never realized the extent to which Mao and Hunan were interconnected in the Chinese imagination. Hunan cooking offers nearly as much heat as Sichuan does, but balances it with sour and salty flavors. “Hunans love spicy whole fish and fish heads,” continued our waiter, “preserved meat, dried bean curd, and lots of what’s inside a cow and pig, too.”
The first dish he brought to the table knocked us out. “Sautéed pork green pepper with poached eggs” ($8.95) turned out to be oddly devoid of pork, but my crew and I didn’t mind: A stack of crisp fried eggs sagged under a truckload of chopped red and green chilies—similar to Thai bird’s-eye chilies, only saltier—whose heat had been mellowed by pickling. It was unlike anything we’d ever tasted before, and we were to see those peppers again and again.
The next dish bore the intriguing name “hollow vegetable” ($8.95). Sliced in short lengths, the woody, light-green stems were without pith, and had been lightly stir-fried with fermented black beans and the same preserved chilies. We later identified the vegetable as ong choy, a/k/a water spinach. When we published a photo on the Voice‘s Fork in the Road food blog, an online tipster informed us that the dish is usually bathed in Chinkiang vinegar, made from glutinous black rice. He also told us that the peppers are known as duo la jiao.
Longer red pickled peppers spilled their seeds into a dark fragrant liquid in “braised fish with pickled chile sauce” ($18.95), a dish we proclaimed the best on the menu. Dramatically, the head of the fish rose, nose-up, from the middle of the plate, like a volcanic atoll. Peeling the flesh off its cheeks, neck, and forehead, we confirmed that the head was the prize of the plate.
For the lover of Chinese food, novelties abound at Hunan House. A Cantonese-leaning appetizer of bean curd in green scallion sauce ($3.95) proved a wonderful palate soother, though we noticed that many tables of Chinese diners kept a tureen of soup working as an alternative means of stanching the burn. Foremost was pumpkin soup, featuring cooling fragments of orange squash and pale bok choy in a light and refreshing broth. The only dish we had difficulty with was “preserved bean curd, Hunan style” ($3.95). Imitating balsa wood, a pile of featherweight planks lay on the platter, flanked by a saucer of sweet chile sauce. Once bitten, they flooded the mouth with a flavor that can only be described as dung-like.
Other entrées overlapped with the Sichuan menu we’ve become familiar with. “Smoked duck, Hunan style” is a full canvasback, mahogany in color and way smoky, making it a good substitute for Texas barbecue. But even better was the similarly named “duck, Hunan style,” which featured little bony nuggets fried to dryness with cayenne and cumin. Further reflecting the Hunan passion for un-soupy presentations, “white chile with preserved beef” was nearly desiccated, like Sumatran beef rendang minus the coconut milk. Interspersed with fibrous fragments of meat were whitish shreds that might have been drafting paper. Holding them up to the light like spectrographers, we discovered that the swatches were dehydrated bean curd skin. Maybe that’s what the chef meant by “white chile.”
One of the house specials cites the former chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. “Braised pork, Mao’s style” ($10.95) is a dish of pork belly and chestnuts cooked with a technique called “red braising” (no pun intended). The dish is forever associated with Mao, and his nephew, Mao Anping, extravagantly extolled it in a recent NPR interview: “Men eat it to build their brains, and ladies to make themselves more beautiful.” Not the most revolutionary sentiment, is it?