Lunch yesterday was a true delight: a foray to a new Hunanese restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. The restaurant, Lao Hunan, is one of a string of very successful regional Chinese restaurants opened by entrepeneur Tony Hu, who realized that some Americans (like me!) crave authentic regional Chinese food—as do Chinese people who want to eat out. I’ve been cooking Szechuanese food since I was in graduate school, and, except in China itself, have never found many restaurants that can prepare Chinese food as good as I can make at home. (There are about three in Chicago, one in San Francisco, and a couple in New York. Forget about the UK.)
Restauranteur Hu’s success in Chicago began with Lao Sze Chuan (a Szechuanese restaurant that became wildly popular), a place I used to frequent but then abandoned when it became too crowded. He then opened Lao ShangHai, Lao Beijing (serving the eponymous cuisine), and then, about eight months ago, Lao Hunan, to which I was introduced by posts on Chicago’s best food website, the LTH Forum (itself named after a Chinese restaurant, the Little Three Happiness). The uniform approbation for this place led me to take my visitor there, violating my long-standing policy to never take a visitor to any restaurant I hadn’t sampled beforehand.
But it turned out very well: the place was not only authentic (despite the Mao kitsch), but terrific. From the outside you might not think it’s anything special, though. I like the slogan.
Inside it’s Mao-themed (Mao came from Hunan, and loved its rich and spicy food), and the waitstaff are forced to wear Chairman Mao uniforms (see below).
The walls are bedecked with photos of famous people from Hunan, including Ding Ling, a woman with a name that sounds funny to Westerners but turns out to be a very famous Chinese writer persecuted by both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao’s regimes:
But first, the food. A good sign when we went in was that all the diners were Asian, and were scarfing down delicious-looking plates of food. We ordered amply, starting with a “salad” made from tree ears (a dried fungus rehydrated in hot water and then served cold) with pickled garlic, red pepper, scallion, and a terrific dressing that must have contained soy sauce, sesame oil, and other unknown spices. It was great! (Click this and other photos to enlarge.)
The best dish of the day, recommended by the LTH group, was green chilis with black beans, a dish that looked strange but was absolutely and addictively delicious. It really brought out the vegetable qualities of the chili. It was hellishly hot but both my friend and I pronounced it the best dish of the lunch. (Fermented black beans are one of the great but underappreciated ingredients of Chinese cuisine, and I cook with them often.) I’ll certainly order this every time I go back.
Chairman Mao’s favorite dish was reputed to be Hunanese pork belly: a dish made from a fatty cut of pork (half of the meat chunks were pure fat) stewed with star anise, five-spice powder, soy, and other goodies that delicately infused the pork. it included peppers and garlic. This is a dish that will scare the bejeezus out of health-conscious Americans (indeed, the waitress asked us if we knew what was in it [I did]), but life is short and food is not medicine. It was luscious and rich, another wonderful dish. Let me not see any health-police commenting below about this one!
Finally, an ample portion of twice-cooked duck with red chilis, which was very good but not up to the standards of the rest of the meal. Eaten in any other restaurant, this dish would be pronounced delicious, but it was dwarfed by the three dishes above. I’m not sure whether twice-cooked duck is a genuine Hunanese dish; the menu had many dishes that were from other regions of China.
My fortune. Just once I’d like to get a fortune that wasn’t stupidly optimistic: perhaps something like, “You’re going to be miserable and die alone,” or “You are about to suffer a great misfortune.” (The classic fortune is, of course: “Help! I’m prisoner in a fortune-cookie factory!”) In many restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown, the non-Chinese diners get fortune cookies while the Chinese ones get fruit, a form of discrimination that always ticks me off. But here both kinds of customers got fortune cookies—chocolate ones.
Afterwords I chatted with the genial server named Venus, of all things. She was really nice and gave us a lot of information about which dishes she liked, and which ones were most popular. I asked her about the Mao suit, and she didn’t appear to mind wearing it. The owner told us that Venus was “very popular.” She has a Buddha tattoo on one arm and one I couldn’t identify on the other.
I hate taking visitors to places that turn out to be mediocre, but in this case we got lucky. I will be back for sure. Dishes range from $5.00 (for the salad) to $14.00 (for the duck), but average about $8-$10 each.