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November 08, 2011

Lao Hunan

Dry Chile String Beans Dominic Armato

Back when Lao Sze Chuan was a food nerd darling, before it caught on as one of the city's most beloved Chinese restaurants, when it was still commonplace to hear people exclaim, "Oh, I don't eat in Chinatown... it's so dirty," (*sigh*), and before he had five restaurants in Chicago, one in the suburbs and one in Connecticut, I recall reading an article wherein owner Tony Hu shared his rather grandiose plan to become the nation's leading Chinese restaurateur. While I adored his food (and his moxie), it struck me as an exceptional amount of bravado for a fellow who was running a largely unknown Sichuan joint out of a corner of the Chinatown mall. All I can say is thank god I underestimated the guy, because while his record isn't flawless, he's brought an awful lot of fabulous Chinese food to Chicago and beyond, and his latest project, Lao Hunan, is no exception.

Famous People from HunanDominic Armato

Thing is, this death star isn't even fully operational. In what's become something of a modus operandi for Hu, he's taken over Taste of Asia, renamed it and redone the interior, brought in a new chef, and is temporarily serving the old menu alongside an abbreviated Hunanese menu while developing the full catalog of dishes that the restaurant will serve when it officially launches in a few weeks. And yet, fabulous dishes still abound and some folks who are more in tune with Chinatown's current offerings than I am are already declaring it one of the city's best. As far as I can tell, the only knock on the place so far is that its Mao-inspired decor and uniform clad waitstaff are odd and/or offensive, depending on how comfortable you are with dictator chic. I have a hard time arguing with that conclusion, even if I've been desensitized by eating at more than a few similarly-themed establishments back in the mother country over the years. On an old blog, I once chronicled a visit to "First Work Team," a theme restaurant intended to inspire nostalgia for the days when famine was killing off tens of millions of Chinese by serving unseasoned mashed tubers to diners sitting on bare concrete floors. No joke. (And I really wish I could find that post.) So in an odd fashion, it all somehow seems perfectly normal to me, and the only thing I disliked about my visit is that it wasn't after the grand opening and with a larger group for more ordering power.

Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork BellyDominic Armato

Hunanese is not a branch of Chinese cuisine about which I'm comfortable speaking with any level of authority, though much of it is familiar to me from visits to Hunanese restaurants while visiting Southern China over the years. Its reputation as a fiery cousin to neighboring Sichuan is well-deserved, but it has always seemed to me to be far less focused on chile oil, vinegar, sugar and Sichuan pepper, and rather a little rounder in character, employing more fresh ingredients, more shallots and garlic, and more smoke. And my impressions were largely borne out, starting with Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly, not without heat but more spiced than spicy, silky pork fat laced with star anise and cinnamon, sweetened with sugar and scallions and fragranced with garlic and ginger. Recent years have created an explosion of pork belly fanatics, and it warms my heart to think that a dish like this will probably now have a mainstream audience, because it's really fabulous and I'd hate for it to sit in obscurity.

Dry Chili Fish FilletDominic Armato

I'm almost angry with Lao Hunan for forcing me to roll back a previous commitment to eschew tilapia, a fish that I generally consider to be a scourge upon the culinary scene. But a hand that can turn those usually tasteless mudbugs into the Dry Chili Fish Fillets has my rapt attention. This was a stunning dish, encasing moist and delicious fish inside a hot and crisp coating with a potent chili and garlic zing that was so good I'm still nursing burns on the inside of my mouth a week later because I couldn't wait just a couple of minutes to let the damn things cool off. While I don't advise approaching them in such a reckless fashion as I did, I nonetheless recommend eating them quickly. After ten minutes they're lovely, but a shadow of what they were when they hit the table. Am I really going to have to list tilapia among my favorite dishes of 2011? Gads, I might.

Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi StyleDominic Armato

The Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi Style is one of those dishes that's simultaneously familiar and frustrating... familiar because I know I've had its ilk on many occasions, frustrating because it was always encountered in a business context when I couldn't learn a thing about it. Buried amongst large pieces of stir-fried peppers, shallots, onions and a brown sauce, the chicken is dark and complex without much in the way of sweetness, dense in texture and -- as one of my dining compatriots put it -- possessed of an almost cheesy quality, like dense blocks of lightly fermented dairy or tofu. I just don't have the literary framework to describe the unusual character of this dish, and though it was probably my least favorite of the evening, I still found it compelling both as an educational exhibit and a tasty plate of food. I wish I knew more about its provenance.

Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean SauceDominic Armato

We also managed to sneak in a couple of vegetables, the more approachable of which was the Dry Chile String Beans, similar to the familiar Sichuan preparation with wrinkled, fried long beans spiked with chiles, garlic and the salty funk of preserved black beans. More notable for a myriad of reasons, however, was the Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean Sauce, a dish solidly in contention for the hottest I've consumed in quite some time. Whole green chiles, seeds and ribbing and all, are bathed in a lightly sweet black bean sauce with thick planks of sliced garlic. It's a minimal and clarifying showcase for fresh green chile flavor, and while it didn't stray into inedible territory for me (though it was even hotter coming out of the fridge the next morning), it definitely slowed me down. I abhor dishes that sacrifice flavor for abusive heat. This one brings both.

These days, Lao Hunan is the kind of place that I find almost more frustrating than anything to visit. The execution is crisp and the flavors are vibrant, yes, but beyond that there's an education to be had in this menu, to say nothing of what it will be like when its size triples. I want to come back, I want to take some time, I want to develop a better understanding of what Hunanese cuisine brings to the table, and I was rocked deeply enough by a few of these dishes that I'm confident the kitchen at Lao Hunan will be an excellent guide. Problem is I have a plane to catch.

Lao Hunan
2230 S. Wentworth Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616
Mon - Sun10:30 AM - 11 PM


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