My dinner with Ivan

June 1, 2012 • 6:47 am

I always love visitors because I can take them to some of the awesome restaurants that festoon our town.  And I particularly like it if the visitors are partial to Chinese food: not that Americanized goop slathered with brown sauce, but the real thing.  And there’s one place to get the real thing if you like Hunanese food: the Lao Hunan Restaurant on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown. Open only for about a year, it specializes in the hearty peasant food of Hunan (Chairman Mao’s homeland), and oy, is it good. Here is the tail end of last night’s dinner that I shared with my friend Ivan, here for the Oncology Meetings. (You think science meetings are big? This one has 35,000 attendees!) I’ve posted on this place before, but last night we tried three new dishes.


  1. Appetizer: Jade tofu, a great starter with chili oil and scallions
  2. Stir-fried green chilis with black bean sauce: one of the best Chinese dishes I ‘ve had anywhere, including China.  If you’ve never appreciated the concept of a hot green chili as a vegetable, this is the place to start. It’s a marvelous melange of strong flavors, and incendiary.  Eat only a bit of a time. But it’s addictive (maybe they should tax it!)
  3. Ground pork with sour beans. The “sour” beans are beans that are pickled in-house, and the combination is marvelous.  It’s spicy but not over the top.
  4. “Famous Hunan stir-fried lamb” with chives and cilantro. Another addictive dish: we kept picking at it even when we were full.

The dishes, except for the chilis, are not sauce-heavy (that dish is oily), and the flavors of the ingredients really shine through.  Ivan, a Chinese-food maven, agreed that it was a stupendous meal.

Here are The Remains of the Night. I have a lot of leftovers to eat in the next two days. Note in the photo how my upper lip is—like that of Richard Nixon—sweating copiously!

Photo taken with Ivan’s iPhone camera

I’ve eaten in all the high-reputation Chinese restaurants in Chicago, I’ve been to the Cantonese and Shanghai emporia of New York and San Francisco, gagged on what passes for “Chinese food” in the UK, and dined copiously in Beijing and Chengdu (Szechuan).  And without a doubt the Lao Hunan is not only the best Chinese restaurant in Chicago, but ranks among the best Chinese restaurants I’ve been to anywhere.

31 thoughts on “My dinner with Ivan

  1. Your next book: diet secrets of Jerry Coyne. I want to know how you stay thin, despite the feasting we often see in photos here.

    On a completely different topic, perhaps you’d care to comment on the ridiculous number of genes in a tomato (see NYT yesterday). This completely violates common sense and is starting to make me wonder if there is a god afterall.

    1. The number of genes in tomato is not really that high – around 35,000. Arabidopsis, which is used as a model organism for plants, has around 27,000 genes, and was chosen as a model organism partly because of its small genome.

      Most of the additional genes in tomato will be paralogues (copies of existing genes in the genome) created by the two whole-genome triplications that have occurred since the tomato and its ancestors diverged from other flowering plants.


  2. I hate brown sauce. I love Chinese food. I don’t go to restaurants much, and “Chinese” almost never since I have no taste for the sweet, brown ichor so often found slathered atop canned baby corn, etc. I love to cook, however, and I love making Chinese.

    I have to shout out to my favorite Chinese place near me: For anyone who visits the Rutgers/New Brunswick NJ area, I recommend Sichuan Spring, which sells wonderful, authentic Sichuanese food. (Have a gander at their ugly website ). It can be a bit oily, and sometimes they have a heavy hand with the Sichuan pepper (producing a peculiar numbing effect on the mouth), but delicious. No brown sauce!

    1. Man, that website is so 1995. 🙂 I kept looking for the animated gif of flames.

      Top item on the menu: “Fish Stomach Soup”. Hmmm…

    2. I live an easy drive from there and I’ll give it a try. Have you ever had “Sichuan Spicy Sausage?” What do you recommend?

      1. The sausage is excellent, homemade. I recommend the Ma Po Bean Curd (lots of meat in there, as it should be), Kung Pao chicken (listed as “Diced chicken w/peanuts in hot pepper sauce”), Chongqing chicken (breaded, fried chicken bits with chilies). There’s also a great duck stew that I don’t see on the online menu – there seems to be a bunch missing, actually, including the entire fish section. I’ve had their steamed whole fish with black bean sauce (iirc) and it was fantastic. I hope you like spicy food!

        I don’t eat out all that much, and there’s lots I haven’t tried on the menu, but I’ve never been disappointed. It’s BYOB.

  3. Hey Jerry, maybe this is like asking for a secret recipe, but how do you find all these great places to eat? I was imagining that if you ever came to the area and I met you, I’d probably use the opportunity ask you where I should go to eat — in my own city! 🙂

    Searching the internet doesn’t help because you get trillions of links with everyone saying they’re the best… is it just word-of-mouth from all those people you meet? 🙂

    1. One of the best sources is the “Little Three Happiness” forum (itself named after a Chinese restaurant; the link is in the post above), where serious local foodies recount their experiences, post pictures, and others chime in. Also reviews in the local newspapers and the “underground” paper–the Reader, and YELP reviews.

      If anyone visits Chicago, I’m glad to recommend places to eat; I’ve already done this for several readers.

      1. Hey, thanks. 🙂

        That seems to be, in case anyone else wants to check it out. As you might expect, it’s Chicago-centric, but it has a “rest of the world” section that you can search.

        Now I’ve gotta get meself over to one of these places and gain some weight…

    1. Yes, indeed, and it was dire (can’t remember the name), though I’m always willing to entertain serious suggestions!

      1. Surprising! That’s the heart of London’s Chinese community, so if you can’t get good Chinese food there, I’m not sure where you can… 

        I’ve certainly enjoyed eating at one or two of the restaurants there in the past. Tai Ka Lok was my wife’s favourite when she was working in London many years ago (although the reviews in that link are wildly different!).

        I haven’t eaten at many Chinese restaurants in the U.S., so I can’t really compare. The only really good one I can remember was China Camp in San Diego, but that’s sadly closed.


        1. He’s right, even in London’s Chinatown the food ain’t great (with some exceptions, though the biggest exception is more Thai and Japanese). Anyone got an explanation for this?

  4. Mmmm… And how does one become friends with Jerry Coyne again? 😉

    I love living in the Raleigh-Durham area, but there’s not exactly a wide selection of excellent Chinese food. I also have feasted in a number of locals in China and HK, so I’m fairly hard to please. 😉

    35 restaurant in Cary is the best I have found, though you have to specifically ask for their Chinese menu for the really good stuff.

    1. At the moment I’m eating leftover Szechuan pork belly from 35. Think 1x1x2 cubes of bacon in a savory and spicy Szechuan sauce. Pity I don’t have a camera handy.

      I’m sure it’s not good for my arteries, but it sure is tasty. 😉

    2. That’s a general rule most places where many or ~ all customers are not Chinese. Bring an (appropriate!) native speaker of the relevant language and get much more interesting food.

  5. The problem with Chinese places is that they always offer thousands of barely distinguishable options on the menu, so that even if you find something great, you can never remember what it was. 😛

    But at least they compensate with funny names. My favorite so far: “Fried Happy Family”.

  6. Next time you are in NYC make sure you check out Xian Famous Foods, a very authentic Uighur (western china/muslim) chinese noodle shop. It is amazing and the food there is stuff that is hard, if not impossible, to find in typical chinese restaurants – even authentic ones. Here’s the website:

    Also, Grand Sichuan is another favorite. The menu is divided into “American Chinese Food” and real sichuan/szechuan food. The real stuff is fantastic.

    Also, a question – do you have any Burmese restaurants in Chicago, or have you ever had Burmese food? That is one of my all time favorite foods. Sort of a perfect combination of chinese, indian, and thai.

  7. Looks great. One reason I like Chicago – food! But if you really want to experience green chiles as a vegetable, you’ll have to come to the southwest.

  8. It has been a while since I’ve been to Chinatown. Non-Chicagoans have no idea how really far it is from Austin & Belmont down to Chinatown, and even farther to where JAC lives. Next time we have company, though, I will insist on going here. It sounds fantastic.

  9. “Famous Hunan stir-fried lamb” … we kept picking at it even when we were full.

    That reminds me of a story that needs a preface. Long before I went to Wm&Mary, visits to Jess Jackson’s gentleman’s farm in Wmsburg happened fairly often. Jackson was the grand old man of the English Dept there, with whom my father had established a friendship after taking his course in Old Norse in the ’30s. Jackson kept a pen of ducks at his farm, and as honored guests, a pair of superbly-roasted ducks were always featured for dinner there, roasted by his wife Minnie, and this tradition continued after he died in 1955. While not exactly like Peking duck, the skin was crackly and the whole bird was absolutely wonderful – no gooey fruit sauces ever got near one of her birds. For dessert, Minnie, being from Alabama, always made pecan pie; her duck and pecan pie remain the standard against which all are measured (but I’ll allow that the tea-smoked duck I once had in SanFrancisco created a separate category for duck).

    Anyway, the story goes that George Lyman Kittredge, the grand old man of the English Dept at Harvard, visited Dr. Jackson once – (this must have been in the ’30s since he died in 1941). After the dishes had been cleared, Minnie asked who would care for dessert. Kittredge declined, but added, “But, I’d be much obliged if you’d bring that duck carcass back.”

    1. I take it you meant “her duck and her pecan pie”, but I read that as “her duck-and-pecan pie” — which sounds interesting, even if it isn’t what you meant!


      1. Yep, should read “standards against which each is measured.”

        BTW, in addition to his fame for his scholarship in Shakespeare and Chaucer, Kittredge was also a folklorist who promoted the collection/preservation of folksongs, so perhaps there’s a song or two that we know now, that was rescued from oblivion as a result of his interest.

        Also, he was never awarded a PhD, likely since his scholarship had exceeded that level before the degree became widespread. There’s a famous story, tho apparently apocryphal, that when he was asked how it happened that he did not have a PhD, he replied, “Who would examine me?”

  10. We still have one of the great unanswered questions of all time – Jewish culture has been around for about 5,000 years, Chinese culture for about 4,000 years. What did Jews eat for those first thousand years?

    Good paper on the the subject of Jews and Chinese food – Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food by Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine

  11. Yum, yum! Sounds magnifique!

    But, I still have a guilty love of the brown-sauced stuff (too). C’mon — it’s like peeps!

  12. Everything looks positively fantastic. I know how good it feels to find an excellent Chinese restaurant. I too consider myself a connoisseur of Asia food have have a special relationship w/ delectable Chinese dishes.

    Next next time you plan to visit San Francisco, try to make it a point to visit Brandy Ho’s on Columbus. A dish called Pork Meat Sauce w/ Noodles is to die for. You will have dreams about it for a long time after you leave town. Everything they prepare is unreal.

    Also be sure to visit the Kam Po (HK)at the intersection of Broadway and Powell near the eastern entry to the Broadway tunnel. You will remember your experience for a long time.

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