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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan

Edited Jan. 2018: In recent months, the quality here has slipped to the point where I feel this place is no longer recommendable.

Perhaps my overall favorite Chinese restaurant in Flushing these days is the somewhat oddly-named Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. Generally wonderful, fiery food served in extremely pleasant surroundings... what's not to love?

I'm probably going to sound like a one-man PR department for this place, but with one or two exceptions--and I've tried a couple of dozen dishes here (less than a quarter of their huge menu)--I've loved everything I've tasted. Hunan food tends to be more straightforwardly spicy than that of neighboring Sichuan, the obvious cuisine for comparison. In fact, from what I've read, the Hunanese like to make fun of the Sichuanese liberal use of numbing Sichuan peppercorns--if you're going to eat hot peppers, why pussy-foot around? I must say I see their point, although I dearly love both approaches.

If asked, the helpful wait-staff will probably steer you towards the BBQ Fish, and they are not wrong. A whole tilapia arrives in a baking dish covered with diced potatoes and yams, scallion, ginger, garlic, roasted peanuts, and, of course, toasted dried red chili peppers. It's set atop a portable gas burner so it can bubble away as you eat it, and it's terrific. They also prepare duck and pig's foot this way--I think the BBQ pig's foot is perhaps even more successful as a dish than the fish (and that's saying something!), but it makes for pretty heavy eating... I don't think I'd want it in warm weather.

Equally good is the "big fish head in huge pot". You're given a choice, but get it spicy--you're at a Hunan restaurant, for god's sake! They don't exaggerate: a large carp's head arrives in a huge pot of broth spiked with pickled hot red peppers, and it simmers atop--you guessed it--a portable gas burner (practically every table in the place has at least one gas burner on it keeping something hot). When you're ready, the waitress will come by and dump a huge plate of vegetables and mung bean sheet noodles in. Probably the best "hot pot" I've ever had. And don't be put off by the "fish head" thing--carp's heads are surprisingly meaty.

Perhaps Hunan's most famous dish, here called "braised pork, Mao's style", is excellent. It was Chairman Mao's favorite dish, and he was said to have eaten it almost every day. Chunks of pork belly simmered in a sweet, spicy brown sauce. Even better, for my money, is an item not on the menu, but you should be able to get it by asking for the "pork leg dish like Mao's pork". Chunks of pork shoulder (one waitress kept insisting it was "leg" and not shoulder, but I know pork shoulder, and this is pork shoulder) braised in a complex brown sauce, not as sweet as Mao's pork, and with just enough red pepper to make it interesting. Served in a lovely mound surrounded by baby bok choy.

It's difficult to go wrong here. I've quite enjoyed all the cold plates I've tried: liquor-soaked duck (here the character 洒 in the Chinese name of the dish is more accurate: "sprinkled"), chicken with scallion and chili oil (not spicy--almost a pesto-feel to the sauce), and ox tongue and tripe in spicy pepper sauce (the meat is okay, but the sauce is the most complex and interesting of any version of this dish I've tried). The spicy cold noodles are reminiscent of their Sichuan counterparts, although the noodles here are a bit wider, and there is the bracing addition of a good dose of vinegar. Stay away from the soup dumplings--one of the only real misfires in my exploration of the menu so far--thick, leathery wrappers and almost no soup. The dipping sauce, though, is fantastic.

Speaking of soup, the hot and sour soup here is the best version I've tried anywhere, with lots of minced pork. And the tomato egg soup is marvelous--much more complex than I expected, yet still oddly comforting.

The chicken with hot red pepper and the Dong An chicken (named for a county in Hunan) are rather similar in overall effect. If choosing, it may come down to a question of bones: the former is small chunks on the bone, the latter boneless. Dong An chicken was an especially popular choice at a recent gathering there. As was farmer-style tofu: rectangles of firm tofu stir-fried with vegetables in a pleasantly spicy sauce.

I've certainly never had anything like the sliced cured pork with dry string beans and dry turnips before. All the ingredients are diced small and dry-fried with hot peppers, of course, and plenty of ginger. It makes for an interesting, surprisingly complex, concentrated flavor. Sauteed bok choy with preserved beans is one of the more unusual vegetable options here, and quite a tasty one. The also do an excellent version of shredded potatoes with vinegar sauce.

The only other dish I've tried so far that I would advise avoiding here is the "veal chop in casserole". I didn't actually expect what I think of as a veal chop, but I didn't exactly expect ribs (cut crosswise, à la Argentine tira de asado)--from what must have been a rather elderly calf--either. The meat was chewy and uninteresting, in an uncompelling sauce. At the above-mentioned gathering, it was left practically untouched.

Hunan Kitchen also has the great advantage of staying open late. The door says until 2 a.m., but upon inquiring it seems that midnight is closer to the truth. Still, a good place to know about for late-night eaters like me.

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-47 Main St., Flushing

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then 6 blocks south on Main St.)