On Sunday I had the pleasure of taking a visiting speaker, professor John Willis of Duke University, to lunch. John works on the adaptation of Mimulus (monkeyflowers) to unusual habitats—copper mines, serpentine soils, etc. More important, he’s a foodie and an old friend (he was a graduate student in our department in the Devonian), and asked to be taken out for Chinese food. I took him to an old favorite, the Lao Hunan, a Hunanese restaurant that I’ve written about before (here and here).
The restaurant is unprepossessing, filled with Chinese people, and, although the waitstaff wear cheesy Mao uniforms (the Chairman was from Hunan), the food is authentic and superb (menu here). We ordered way too much food, but it was my job to introduce John to the restaurant’s diversity.
(Click photo to enlarge to full scrumptiousness.)
The first course was a cold appetizer, Tai Gan Hunan style (#103 on the menu). A local food website recommended this, but I had no idea what it was. We asked the waitress, who had recently immigrated from China, what it was, and her answer was, “Vegetable!” When we asked what kind of vegetable, she said, “Green vegetable!” So I’m still mystified, but I’m sure some reader can identify this for me. It appears to be the stem of some type of plant, and was cooked with red chilis, sesame seeds, scallions, and a spicy sauce:
(UPDATE: this appears to be the stem of some type of lettuce that is dried, but the Google translation leaves a bit to be desired!)
We had another spicy dish for a side course: “Famous Hunan chili in black bean sauce” (#605). It’s an incendiary concoction, but the best thing in the house. Stir-fried with garlic, fermented black beans (an underappreciated ingredient for Americans), this really brings out the vegetable nature of hot green chiles. You can eat only a bit at a time, and even then you’ll pay for it the next day. But it’s well worth it.
A must-order: “Chairman Mao’s favorite pork belly” (#411). From what I know it was indeed Mao’s favorite, as he loved the peasant foods of his province. The fatty pork belly is cooked in a rich sauce with star anise and soy sauce, and was complemented with pepper and tomato. Food police: do not complain about this dish! After all, Mao lived 83 years.
Here’s #523: “Dry chili fish filet”. A good dish, not too spicy and copious, with a light crunchy coating over absolutely fresh fish.
Perhaps the second-best dish of the meal (after the chili and black beans): “Home fed chicken Xiang Xi style” (#302). The chicken (cooked on the bone) was rich, tasting almost as if it had been smoked.
Finally, a gratuitous vegetable dish, “Hunan style crispy eggplant”(#622), it was quite good, but given that we already ordered fried fish, I probably should have ordered Hunanese string beans, which aren’t breaded.
Here’s John at the beginning of the meal. You can see that the restaurant isn’t fancy. There were lots of leftovers, and John took half of them, swearing he’d eat them on the plane (what—with no rice or chopsticks?).
And oy, were we full!
If you come to Chicago, like delicious and authentic Chinese food, be sure to eat here. You can thank me later.