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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

A Tasty Trip to China's Other Popular Cuisine

May 09, 1991|DAVID NELSON

Back at the dawn of time--which is to say, 15 or 20 years ago--the Szechuan and Hunan schools of Chinese cooking shouldered aside the long-dominant Cantonese style and captivated this country with the novelty of their pungent, peppery flavors.

For a brief time, the two shared the limelight, but Szechuan soon rose to the top of the heap (partly because it has a much larger repertoire), and the generally more rustic, more roughly-hewn Hunan faded, except in the largest cities.

San Diego County is one place that never has had to do without, since the Hunan restaurant in Rancho Bernardo opened soon after the hot-and-spicy Chinese craze hit the United States.

Even here, the dishes identified as specifically Hunan are in the minority, and Szechuan preparations are at least as numerous. The restaurant seems to thoroughly understand the elements that unite the two styles, however, and evidence of this is in the air the moment you enter the dining room: The odors are a little sharper and sweeter than at most Chinese houses, and the exciting aroma of fresh ginger seems to impregnate the atmosphere.

The only Hunan-style starter is the plate of special, soft won ton reposing in hot oil. These are not without interest, but dumpling fanciers will be happier with the steamed dumplings, obviously made on the premises (the soft dough packages are scalloped where they have been pinched shut between thumb and forefinger) and bursting with a juicy filling of minced pork and scallion greens.

A thick julienne of fresh ginger garnishes the plate, and cruets of mild vinegar and flame-hot chili oil arrive on the side. Mix these three and a little soy sauce to taste as a dip for the dumplings, and be sure to take a bite of ginger with each dumpling. The effect of this combination is exquisite.

Among the more mundane appetizers are thoroughly mundane egg rolls and batter-fried shrimp that, when all the excess batter is cut away, reveal very small but flavorful shellfish.

The soup list makes a specialty of sizzling rice soups (the explosion of sound results when rice crisped in hot oil is abruptly dumped into steaming broth), but goes more Hunan with the robust, hearty cabbage and pork soup, a no-nonsense, filling brew that also appeals (with rather different seasonings, of course) to the populace of Southwestern France.

An increasing number of Chinese restaurants have adopted the practice of prefacing the menu with a page of specialties, and at Hunan, the very first dish listed may be among the restaurant's top offerings.

The Hunan special beef, while fairly simple in nature, at least is complex in terms of the flavors in the sauce, which run from sweet and spicy-hot to pungent (fresh ginger), salty (salted, preserved soybeans) and aromatic flavors.

The meat itself, sliced thinly but still thick enough to have a little chewiness, is tender, and very happy in the sauce. (Hunan also offers, again on the specials list, the spicy shredded beef that is a signature Szechuan beef dish. The sauce, rich and hot, is a little less complicated in flavor than that of the Hunan-style dish; the shredded carrots and celery that complement the beef contribute taste and texture.)

There is also tea-smoked duck, a well-regarded bird that doesn't turn up on many local menus; Hunan-style eggplant with minced pork, scallions and a spicy gravy, and the "deluxe" pan fried soft noodles.

These last items do seem on the luxurious side, since the garnishes--fat shreds of pork, split shrimp, squares of meaty bok choy, pungent forest mushrooms--account for far more of the volume of the dish than do the noodles, soft-crisp and pleasingly chewy in the unique Chinese style.

This reasonably inclusive menu is better written than many and offers excellent choice. Not all dishes are perfect, however; the shrimp in Peking sauce, for example, while not noted as hot, were flavored with lots of those devilish Szechuan "black paper" peppers. Without these, however, there would have been little flavor at all, since the sticky sauce was sweet rather than flavorful.

HUNAN 16719 Bernardo Center Dr., Rancho Bernardo Calls: 487-8131 Hours: Lunch and dinner daily Cost: Entrees range from $4.95 for fried rice dishes to a high of $22 for Peking duck

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