The Hunan Garden in Santa Monica is celebrating the new year with crisp new menus. That information is meaningful only if you had dealt with the previous set, which, inside their flossy gold and red, plastic-protected covers, had become as limp as cloth.
The degree to which those menus had been thumbed reflects the popularity of this restaurant. It is always crowded for dinner, requiring a wait for a table if you don't have reservations.
The popularity is understandable, for the food is immensely appealing to the American taste. That means down-to-earth, robust, familiar dishes served in generous portions rather than refined, unusual banquet fare.
There is, for example, lemon chicken, which was recently elevated from the poultry section of the menu to the list of house specialties. It may not be the greatest lemon chicken, but it is good enough, with a thick, tart-sweet sauce that will satisfy most customers.
Still back in the poultry section is that old-timer, moo goo gai pan. This light, fresh combination of sliced chicken breast, pea pods, bamboo shoots and mushrooms should not be overlooked. The zestier dishes are wonderful. But plain food provides needed relief in between. Also, a plain dish reveals the skill of the cook because there is no sauce to disguise errors. And the Hunan Garden does very well by its moo goo gai pan.
Errors do occur. One night the crispy duck was crispy indeed--all the way through, a dried-out disaster that should never have come to the table. Fortunately, the rest of the dishes arrived in good shape. One of them, spareribs in hot sauce, was irresistibly good, that is, if you like rich, gloppy, super-hot barbecue sauces. The ribs are cut into small pieces, which makes them slightly less messy to deal with than ordinary barbecued ribs.
Hunan Garden does an interesting kung pao dish. There is no need to choose between chicken, shrimp or beef, because you get all three. And for once the plate is not overwhelmed with peanuts, a kung-pao cop-out practiced by some restaurateurs.
For a table-side show, order the sizzling-steak or sizzling-seas delicacies. The sauces are poured onto hot platters, sending billows of steam to the ceiling. Then the steak or seafood and accompanying vegetables are added. Not steam but smoke can be a problem in this restaurant, for tables are clustered very close, and it is impossible to escape the fumes of neighboring cigarettes.
Hunan Garden has a small list of modest wines that relate well to Chinese food. Two that performed well with the spicy dishes were Shenandoah Vineyards White Zinfandel and Bogle Chenin Blanc. The wines are nicely served, with ice buckets that hook onto the table to keep them cold.
Dessert consists of fortune cookies and almond cookies. Candied bananas and apples are on the menu, but possibly just for looks. When I asked for them, they weren't available.
Sample prices are $6.75 for the lemon chicken, $5.95 for the spareribs in hot sauce, $8.95 for the sizzling beef steak and $9.50 for the kung pao combination.
Hunan Garden, 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (213) 451-2808. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards accepted. No checks. Enter parking lot in the back from 11th Street. There is another location at 9102 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 858-1296.