A Hunanese lunch!

March 11, 2012 • 9:07 am

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.

61 thoughts on “A Hunanese lunch!

    1. No, you get to choose either that, or being sent to a re-education camp, where you have to memorise the entire content of The Little Red Book and greet every person you come across with “Hail Chairman Mao!”.

  1. I wonder how much nostalgia the people in Chinatown have for the Mao era?

    Thanks for the recommendation. I don’t get down there often enough anymore.

  2. In the name of Allah, YHWH, Jesus and Vishnu, I knew atheists were just trying to ressurect Mao because he was one of them!!111

    1. This was exactly my question! I’d love a recommendation for a Chinese cookbook that has great everyday meals.

      1. I have elebenty gazillion Chinese cookbooks, but without a doubt my all-time favorite is Szechuanese. Although I usually improvise, the improvisations are often variations on dishes in this book, which are authentic and not that difficult. One does, however, need a good cast-iron wok, a wok shovel, and a good cleaver and cutting board. And it takes practice to know when things are done, when ingredients get added, and the like. You also, of course, have to accumulate stocks of things like dried red chiles, dried black mushrooms, sesame oil, fermented black beans, star anise, and the famous Szechuan peppercorns.

        I’m pleased to find that my favorite, Mrs. Chiang’s Chinese Cookbook (a collaboration with her employer, Ellen Schrecker), can still be bought used and cheaply on Amazon.

  3. Perhaps the fortunes could be appropriately themed: “You will spend your last years in a re-education camp”, “You will be required to make steel at home”, etc. – can’t think of any positive ones at the moment.

    1. yeah, really. with gas ovens. how about soul food served by guys in klan sheets. I mean, this is offensive. Mao was a murderer and yet now being branded as pop art chic? Pinker’s book lists Mao’s murderous regime as the second most violent episode in history (though it drops to 11 after population % adjustment p 195, 20 worst things people have done to each other), with most of the deaths caused by famine. yet, some smart ass thinks it’s funny or clever or who knows what, so he starts a Mao-themed restaurant? W! T! F!

      1. Well, there was that bit about the picture of the persecuted writer…Perhaps the whole Mao thing is meant to be, uh, ironic?

        Still…!

      2. Mao has been pop-art chic for a long time (think Andy Warhol, and all the young people who used to wear Mao buttons back in the 60s and 70s). I’m not saying it’s tasteful, but I think one can reasonably draw a distinction between Mao on the one hand (still admired, at least officially, in China) and Hitler and the KKK on the other (admired only by the lunatic fringe).

        1. But Derek, it is that distinction that is the problem. If Andy Warhol and the kids of the ’60s had chosen the German dictator/killer rather than the Chinese dictator/killer and if Hitler was “still admired, at least officially, in Germany,” would Jerry have had his picture taken below a picture of Hitler?

    1. Well, I used to go to the Hunan restaurant (I think it was just called “Hunan”) on the NE edge of Chinatown, and the food was terrific, but Googling it now I can’t find it. That leaves me with no recommendations for San Francisco. Their dim sum palaces are okay, though.

  4. “Forget about the UK”. Well, perhaps you are right about London, but both Glasgow and Aberdeen have some splendidly authentic Chinese restaurants. And unlike London they don’t practise creative accounting!

    1. One of the best Chinese I ever had was on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. Inside didn’t look much different from a greasy spoon but the food was glorious. The other point is that we in the UK tend to get Cantonese style rather than Szechuan.

  5. I teach in a large US music conservatory and a lot of the students are from Asia. Invariably they get fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants and wonder what they are and why they are considered Asian food.

    If the restaurant gave fruit to everyone the Americans would ask for fortune cookies. If the restaurant gave fortune cookies to everyone . . .

    I was in China in the 80’s and they had Mao’s body in a huge glass case. I wonder if it’s still there on public view?

    1. I also encountered a Chinese woman named Venus. Was the owner saying that the name Venus was popular in China?

    2. I was in China about ten years ago and yes, I saw the embalmed Chairman in Tiananmen square. He looked very. . . waxy.

      1. Lenin looks much the same in Red Square. Not lifelike at all.

        But there are still lines of people waiting to pay their respects. (Or there were as late as 2001, when I was there.)

        1. Well, in fairness, many are probably there to see the show (dead dictator on display!!) rather than to show any respect for the thankfully deceased. I know I would want to visit both, so that I could smile knowing that they were nothing but rotting meat.

  6. “You will be awakened at midnight in your dorm and ordered to make glass iPhone screens at the Foxconn factory for a pittance wage. It will be an improvement on your previous life on a rural farm.”

  7. I am not sure about the Mao theme. One of the worst baddies of the 20th Century, in my book, and not somebody whose effigy I would enjoy having look down on me while eating my noodles. I remember a Mao restaurant in the Cherry Creek district of Denver a few years ago, with similar and worse Mao paraphernalia. I am sure most patrons did not really know who he was or what he did. I always wondered whether a Stalin Lounge, Beria Bar, or a Pol Pot Pub would be as popular. Sadly, the answer is probably yes.

    1. My thoughts exactly. An Austrian restaurant bedecked with portraits of Adolf Hitler, where the Fuhrer’s favourite vegetarian meals are served by waiters kitted out in brown shirts, swastika armbands and jackboots would be considered utterly beyond the pale. No such place would ever be allowed to operate. Yet it seems that a Mao-themed diner is just a bit of kitschy fun. Why does one bloodsoaked tyrant get a free pass and not the other?

    1. I don’t remember any names, but I’ve had some good Cantonese meals in London, rivalling stuff I’ve had in HK and Guangzhou. You might just have to try your luck in Chinatown, but stay off the main street.

      In Oxford, however, there’s a really lovely Chinese place, called Sojo. Quite new – a few years old. It’s near the train station, on Hythe Bridge street (on the way into the city from the station). It’s a mix of northern cuisines, but all the dishes are brilliant, especially the pork belly (utterly moutwatering) and a deliciously greasy mix of salt fish, chicken, and aubergine. One of my favourite restaurants in England, for sure.

  8. “Hunanese pork belly”

    Wow!, my in-laws make that for me all the time. Most of the time, I trim the fat and mix in a bunch of rice.

  9. It’s a little amusing that the first person on the bottom row of the “who’s who” photo wall is Ma Ying-Jeou, the president of Taiwan. Ma was born in Hong-Kong. He has Hunan ancestry but it’s a little funny to claim Ma as a famous person from Hunan.

    1. It’s not that funny to some Chinese people (certainly not all), who retain the concept of the ancestral home. An ancestral home is the homeseat of your ancestors stretching back between five and ten generations. It’s one of the only surviving relics of the old system of Chinese descent groups. Likewise, Jay Chou, the Taiwanese singer, could be considered a person of Tianjin in northern China, because that’s his ancestral home.

  10. In Milwaukee we also have a restaurant that serves homemade Chinese Noodles with a black bean sauce. It is scrumptious. I will be in Chicago within the next few weeks and will try this place out. Thanks.

  11. Dr. Coyne, judging from your love of Szechuan cuisine, I’d guess that you can handle spicy food well.

    IIRC, one famous Hunanese dish is fish (whole or fish head) drenched in chopped red chilies. Is it available in this restaurant? Would you dare to try it?

    1. Yes, four Chinese women dining at the next table ordered an amazing-looking dish, and when I asked them what it was, it turned out to be the whole fish completely covered in chilis and other stuff. They said it was the best dish on the menu, and I’ll surely try it next time I go.

  12. If you want good food from another nation go to where people from that country eat. Around here for Mexican food it’s the taco wagons that serve caldo and torta pastor.

    But the best food around here is Vietnamese. In some of the nearby pho restaurants I saw Vietnamese people requesting a propane burner and a pot. They custom cooked their own pho. I asked the waitress how I could do this and said I would tip heavily if she showed us how to eat this way. Best food I ever ate.

    I also sometimes go to a restaurant where the menu is in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl. It’s as delicious as it it sounds.

  13. Yeah, I’m sure the 30 million or so that died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward appreciate the irony.

    OTOH, most Chinese regard him as a historical figure who, despite his faults made China united and strong, and since it was his own people he killed….

    And, bloodyhell, with the PRC trying to claim Jeremy Lin on the ground his ancestors came from Zhejiang to Taiwan 300 years ago, Ma Ying-jeou isn’t that much of a stretch- wasn’t so long ago that Taiwan ID cards showed which province in China people had come from.

    Here in Taiwan over the past 20 years there have been a few Nazi- and even Holocaust-themed bars and restaurants open up; the Israeli Embassy usually squelches them pretty quickly. The last incident was back in September: 7-11 was selling cute little Hitler key-rings and dolls, though they did at least give him fangs.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/taiwan/8789786/Hitler-key-rings-cause-outrage-in-Taiwan.html

    Though my favorite theme restaurant here was the one where they served creamy chocolate pudding piled up in miniature toilets, while the patrons were seated on toilets.
    http://btr.michaelkwan.com/2007/11/17/taiwanese-eat-out-of-a-toilet-while-sitting-on-a-toilet/

    1. I went to the toilet restaurant in 2007. The food is not all that special. They certainly need the gimmick.

      My first Nazi experience in Taiwan was seeing a little boy walking near Taipei Main Station with a little SS uniform on and a Nazi naval flag on a flagpole on his back. Very odd indeed.

    2. Leaving the restaurant theme aside for a moment and picking up on the TW identity cards showing original CN province, my recollection is that the Kuomintang kept itself in power in TW for many of the early years by the parliament having delegates from all provinces (including the mainland ones now under Communist control) – and since there could be no elections in the mainland provinces, the original delegates held their seats indefinitely. But I’m not an historian – perhaps someone more knowledgeable can confirm/deny/elaborate.

  14. I love your edict: Food is not medicine.

    Fantastic.

    Of course, one can’t have the pork belly every day of the week without ending up looking like a pork belly. But I know so many people who deny themselves simple gustatory pleasures because of a morbid fear of eating something flavorful-but-fattening. A friend of mine once brought his own cornflakes and soy milk to a PREPAID breakfast buffet at a group function.

  15. Jerry Coyne said:

    “The problem here is that our own planet isn’t faithful: it’s going to be incinerated in about five billion years”

    Actually, Earth is going to be a completely uninhabitable dead planet in 900 million years due to solar activity. It is going to be scorched rock like Mercury in 5 billion years.

  16. I’m a translator living in South Brazil and will sadly never visit Chicago, but reading this post was an absolute delight. Many thanks.

Leave a Reply