A Sunday lunch in Chinatown

April 2, 2013 • 5:03 am

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.

24 thoughts on “A Sunday lunch in Chinatown

  1. I’m not so sure the TSA would let John take some of those dishes on the plane. A rule about incendiary substances of something.

  2. A window into a life I maybe could have had were I a smidgen smarter and had I made more sensible choices about university…thank you Jerry.

    1. Certainly the best Chinese food does, especially if you include value for money in your calculations. Laminex tables and lino on the floor are not bad signs, with a bit of luck they mean the owners are just off the plane and haven’t yet been corrupted by Cantonese or Western food preferences.

  3. Makes my mouth water… want to have some of that pork belly and spicy veggies.

    Oh, and pickled gong choy veggie is also good when soaked and cooked with pork, etc.

    1. Great grub. Yum!

      I think “Tai Gan Hunan style” is a pickled vegetable dish sprinkled with sesame seeds & doused in chilli oil

      I thought prom the pic that the pickled veg were green beans & red pepper with fresh green onion for added crunch
      [though now I’m leaning toward Michelle’s Chinese broccoli or bok choy maybe]

      1. We’re both a little off base. They’re not broccolli and definitely not bok choy. I too thought they looked like green beans, but Jerry posted a link above that says the following and the photo at that link indeed shows the green veggie stems:
        “Cai gong, gong choi, tai gan, tribute vegetable, greens tribute, mountain jelly vegetable, vegetable loud, gong CAI / 贡 菜 / Tai Gan / 苔干 (China). ”

        Oh, the pickled veggie I was thinking of is actually lily roots– different ‘animal’. Very tasty.

  4. Mmmmmm (apart from the fish – I’m an anti-pescatarian if that makes sense). Got to love fermented black beans, they really add something to the right dish!

  5. From your translated link:

    The flavor is not very pronounced, a little spinach-like perhaps, the structure is supercrunchy, a sort of über-celery, but without wires.

    I don’t know why, but I find this translated description charming, almost poetic.

  6. “…he was a graduate student in our department in the Devonian…”
    Seems to have held up pretty well.

  7. (he was a graduate student in our department in the Devonian)

    So … he’s got some good recipes for cooking Eurypterid? Jaekelopterus Thermidor? And some clues for how to get a 2.5m long arthropod into the pan?
    He could even have a salad of Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii. Perhaps.

  8. Aha! A mimulus expert!

    Next time you see him, ask if he knows how and why Mimulus moschatus lost its scent a hundren years (or more) ago. And why, in spite of diligent searching, no one has ever found another scented specimen.

  9. Rock ON sir! I love you food posts. I just had Chinese (pork lo mein) very mice but not to compare with your Hunanese.

  10. “The Chinese food in Lao Hunan is Good” Is True. Your writing is good enough to convince me, I don’t have to try it. Professor Coyne, What a honor to have you write a commentary for a Chinese restaurant. Some one post it on the wall in the restaurant, please. The taste and quality of the food there is approved by a world famous evolutionary biologist. I have a place for lunch next time I visit the windy city. Thanks, Prof. Coyne!

  11. We live in Costa Rica. Last year we took a 5 hours flight to New York and from there traveled by train to visit a couple of US cities. We also stayed in Chicago and visited the Field museum. We were very impressed by the exhibition about evolution. Walking through was like walking through the history of our planet. At the end the famous words of Darwin were displayed: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful…”
    Of course after all this we were tired and took a taxi for a short drive to Chinatown. And at Jerry’s recommendation we had dinner at the Lao Hunan restaurant. It was so delicious we went back every day! We are from Holland, and one of the things we miss very much are the Chinese-Indonesian restaurants, which are abundant there.
    Cor and Willy.

  12. Jerry does so love his food. And the pork belly dish confirms something that I have long suspected. He doesn’t let silly cultural taboos get in the way of his finding a good meal.

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