Move Over, Sichuan Cuisine. Now, There's Something Spicier
What's hotter than Sichuan cuisine? Hunan cuisine. While Sichuan cuisine relies on peppercorns that numb your palate and temper the spiciness of the food, Hunan dishes are typically piled with peppers, usually jalapenos, that produce wave after wave of unrelenting heat. If that's your jam, you're in luck. Hunan cuisine is one of the better represented regional styles of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley — even if it gets less love than the food from its neighbor to the northwest.
Located in south central China, Hunan Province is next to Chongqing, which was formerly part of Sichuan Province. Known for its smoked and cured meats and its liberal use of shallots, scallions, leeks, garlic, and chili peppers, it's one of China's eight great cuisines. If capsaicin isn't your friend, you have options.
Modern Hunan restaurants are usually willing to adjust the heat level of your food and not every dish is loaded with peppers. Mao's braised pork, a favorite of Hunan native son Mao Zedong, is far from blazing. Dong'an chicken, parboiled chicken flavored with chilis, peppercorns, rice vinegar, scallions and ginger, is another signature dish that, while spicy, can be milder.
Hunan fare, also known as Xiang cuisine, relies on pork but it also incorporates chicken, duck and beef. Even frog, turtle and rabbit turn up. Despite being a landlocked province, Hunan's location along Dongting Lake (Hunan translates to "south of the lake") means freshwater fish and shellfish also feature prominently in the cuisine. Take note that "vegetarian" and "vegetable" aren't interchangeable terms in most Hunan restaurants. Pork fat is traditionally used to cook vegetables, such as the classic cauliflower dish, although you will find exceptions.
In the San Gabriel Valley, which has several Hunan restaurants, these four are a cut above.
Hunan Mao Jia
Originally opened and operated by John Huang, the "Johnny Pepperseed" of San Gabriel Valley's Hunan dining scene, a change of ownership hasn't altered the restaurant's status as the top local choice for Hunan dishes. Their version of Mao's Braised Pork, pork belly with soy sauces, rice wine, ginger, garlic and spices, is a standout. They also do a mean version of another signature Hunan dish, steamed fish head casserole with "special hot pepper," served in a round pot lined with tofu. Ordering it medium is still plenty spicy for most non-Hunanese diners. Note that the fish, usually carp, it is quite bony. Greatest hits at Hunan Mao Jia include Changsha shu mai, dumplings filled with seasoned rice that look for all the world like nuclear plant cooling towers; steamed taro with chili; and steamed lily with pumpkin, which has no heat and will cleanse your palate.
Pro Tip: When you search for the restaurant, it comes up as "Hunan Mao" but the signage out front reads "Mao Jia."
8728 Valley Blvd., Suite 101, Rosemead. 626-280-0588.
Hunan Chili King
Despite slashing more than 70 items from its menu, including several turtle and rabbit dishes, Hunan Chili King still serves 104 dishes, a wider range than almost any other Hunan restaurant in the SGV. Want a striking example of the way Hunan cuisine uses smoked meats? Look no further than the "steamed preserved pork fish chicken," a dish of Hunan-style bacon, fish and chicken, steamed together and doused in chili oil. On its own, each component is like a campfire. Together, they're a trifecta of smoky glory. Could this dish be any smokier? We're pretty sure the answer is no.
Pro Tip: Park on Valley Blvd. or a side street to avoid the nightmarish plaza lot.
534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. 626-288-7993.
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Dong Ting Chun
Located on the second floor of Focus Plaza, Dong Ting Chun is an underrated and overlooked Hunan spot. That's partly because the restaurant, much like Hunan Chili King, has been around for more than a decade and people tend to forget about the stalwarts as they flock to the hottest, newest thing. But Dong Ting Chun still stands out. The restaurant makes its own Hunan-style smoked ham, which is served in a variety of dishes, including with smoked tofu or sun-dried radish. Other specialties include fish head smothered in hot peppers, frog dishes like spicy stir-fried frog or red chili oil frog, and "strong odor tofu" dishes, which feature fried, fermented tofu. Sometimes called "stinky tofu," it's the Chinese equivalent of smelly French cheese and like those mephitic dairy products, it's an acquired taste.
140 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 206-207, San Gabriel. 626-988-9165.
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If you're willing to head further east into the San Gabriel Valley, you'll find more restaurants. Of the three specifically Hunan-style eateries in the Rowland Heights area, the best is Chili House. Located in the newish Pearl of the East Plaza, its featured selections include steamed fish head with chili, sauteed preserved pork with pickled turnip and a steamed, smoked meat combio that accentuates the smokiness of the chicken, pork and fish. Most notably, the restaurant sometimes replaces pork fat with soybean oil so dishes like the house special cauliflower pot taste lighter.
18888 Labin Ct., Suite 111, Rowland Heights. 626-716-7611.