The People’s Spice

Maria Nelson

The massive mural of Mao Zedong in Tony Hu’s new restaurant has raised a red flag for more than a few food critics. Lao Hunan is embellished with all the amusing touches of the Hunan province of China, including the face of its most prominent former resident, Chairman Mao. The servers are decked out in drab olive People’s Liberation Army uniforms, complete with matching messenger bags. A fellow diner noted that it was a bit unnerving to see waiters dressed in military uniforms smile at him, but for the most part the decorating effort comes off as more historical than radical. In fact, the only things truly communist in this joint are the communal tables. Despite Lao Hunan’s busy décor, the crowd-pleasing menus are stocked with unpretentious, well-executed Chinese staples.

Tony Hu, regarded by many as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, is a humble and ambitious man. His philosophy is simple: cook authentic Chinese food true to the culinary traditions of the provinces his restaurants represent. Despite Hu’s modest aims, each of his projects has received consistent critical attention and acclaim. He is sometimes credited as the key source of Chinatown’s transformation over the past two decades into an accessible dining destination. His newest restaurant, Lao Hunan, sits behind a yellow and red sign and matching canopy on Wentworth in old Chinatown.  Lao Hunan specializes in dishes from the Hunan province in southern China, which borders Hu’s native Sze Chuan. Hunanese cuisine is known for packing a scorching dry heat; the spice used numbs the mouth, temporarily enabling diners to consume remarkable quantities of spicy food.

The medium-sized dining room comfortably seats about 50 people at various small rectangular and large round tables. For a Friday night, the wait is not long, the frazzled host quickly moving through the long list of reservations.

Lao Hunan has two menus: one which offers Hunanese specialty items (as well as cameos from Lao Sze Chuan, such as the Sze Chuan Green Beans and Ma Po Tofu) and the other, a “Taste of Asia” menu, which provides a more general spread of Chinese appetizers, stir-fry dishes, and fried rice and noodles.

Flavorful, delicate, and refined, the Jade Tofu ($5) is a good choice for a first course in place of generic fried offerings from the Taste of Asia menu. Thin chilled slices of firm tofu are served in chili oil with chopped scallions; the mixed sensation of cool and spicy on the tongue is unusual and memorable, and the scallions provide a textural counterpoint.

As in most traditional Chinese restaurants, plates are placed in the center of the table to be shared and served with a large bowl of rice. Popular dishes are eaten quickly while the less preferred are neglected, eventually boxed up and handed off as leftovers. The clear winner of the evening’s main courses was the Spicy and Crispy Chicken ($11)–fried bites of chicken served on a bed of dried red chilies. The Famous Stir Fried Lamb ($15) and House Fried Rice ($8) were also finished quickly. Chairman Mao’s Favorite Pork Belly ($10) was intensely spicy sweet, though too indulgent to justify a second serving; the table went through this course slowly due to fattiness of the meat and portion size, which was three times the size of similar pork belly dishes found in trendy farm-to-table small plate restaurants sweeping Chicago.

Spice, the centerpiece of Hunanese cuisine, was subtle enough in many dishes to be enjoyed by even the most pain-intolerant of diners. One item on the menu, however, begged adventurous guests for a bite: the Famous Hunan Chili in Black Bean Sauce ($9), a bowl of black beans accompanied by strips of spicy green peppers in a tongue-tingling chili sauce.

Noting that the dish was already marked with two chilies on the menu (out of a possible two), in the spirit of inquiry one daring diner asked for the dish to be prepared extra hot. While the heat drew tears and cries for milk from some, others remarked that the heat complimented the more nuanced flavors of the chili nicely. Suffice it to say, Lao Hunan is equipped to satisfy a wide range of palates.

2230 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 10:30am-11:00pm. (312)842-7888

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