By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
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By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
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New Hunan Restaurant, 1575 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-9484. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
A couple of years ago, my younger daughter had an epiphany at a Chinese restaurant. She was happily consuming a noodle dish when she suddenly dropped her chopsticks, struck by the force of revelation. "If I lived in China," she exclaimed, "I'd get to eat Chinese food every day!" Visions of a lifetime feasting on Asian specialties danced across her mind. Then she looked over at me and my wife. "How come you had to be my parents?" she asked, a question we've asked ourselves more than once, too. No doubt this kid has inherited my Chinese-food gene. Those of us afflicted can no more resist the urge to wander the city in search of Chinese food than salmon can fight the impulse to swim upstream toward their spawning grounds. That's how we've been programmed. But our journey rarely ends in unqualified dinner success. While the Valley has very few truly bad Chinese restaurants, it has got scores of truly mediocre ones. The New Hunan Restaurant seemed like a promising place to look for above-average fare. It's got new ownership, a new chef and a new menu. The place has been spiffed up, too, in an understated way. Vinyl booths, vases filled with silk flowers and ornate Asian ceiling lights are the principal decorating motifs.
The restaurant might have considered a new name, as well, because most dishes have a distinctly Cantonese pedigree. (It used to be called Hunan Restaurant.) The human scenery was promising: About two dozen customers came for dinner the night we visited, and we were just about the only ones who weren't Chinese.
9617 N. Metro Parkway W.
Phoenix, AZ 85051
Region: North Phoenix
The place has two menus. One comes in a black, hardbound volume. It contains the chop-suey-parlor staples: sweet-and-sour pork, egg foo yung. "For Americans, they like," explained our waiter. The other is pink, listing more adventurous fare. It offers lots of seafood, clay pot dishes and authentic-sounding options like beef tendon in oyster sauce, beef tripe with ginger and cuttlefish with sprouts. We put the Americanized menu aside and plunged into the genuine articles. Well, almost. My companions insisted on sampling the hot-and-sour soup. Big mistake. It needs to undergo considerable improvement just to reach mediocrity. The two principal drawbacks: It wasn't hot, and it wasn't sour. This broth wouldn't have raised a sweat on a newborn baby. The main-dish fare ranged from unspectacular to exceedingly tasty. But if there's a logic to ordering, I haven't yet figured it out. For example, I licked my chops over the arrival of preserved orange peel chicken. The best version of this dish I've ever had consisted of crisply fried chicken chunks fired up with hot peppers, in a tart, citrusy glaze flecked with orange peel. Here, though, we got routine bits of unbattered fowl in a bland sauce that had barely a hint of orange.
The clay pot flounder was another semidisappointment. In the first place, it came in a sizzling metal bowl, not a clay pot. So instead of slowly simmered fish, we got fried flounder, and a particularly bony one at that. I was thrilled to see chow fun, thick rice noodles, on the menu. But despite loads of thin-sliced beef, the model here didn't give off much in the way of flavor sparks. Yet some of the platters were absolutely lick-off-the-plate good. Sizzling scallops with black pepper doesn't sound like the kind of dish that could create much excitement. But the bucketful of scallops on a scorchingly hot iron skillet, drenched in a divinely pungent, wine-bathed sauce, is absolutely outstanding. It's hard to believe the same chef could be behind the orange peel chicken and the clay pot flounder. The kitchen also gets the Peking ribs in Mandarin sauce perfectly right. Again, the name gives no inkling of the taste explosion that's in store. You get lots of small, bone-in pork, battered and deep-fried, glazed with a peppy orange coating. Whatever this platter lacks in nutrition, it makes up in flavor. If Honey Bear's BBQ opened a Hong Kong branch, this is probably what it'd be serving. Shrimp dishes could also use some descriptive menu help. As it is, few folks could know that something called shrimp with maggie sauce brings 11 medium-size shrimp, stir-fried in their shells and nestled in an aromatic, smoky soy sauce. It seems to me the retail value of the shrimp alone has to be more than the $7.95 the restaurant charges. The Buddhist's Delight surpasses the run-of-the-mill Chinese-restaurant vegetarian platter. Instead of the usual blend of water chestnuts, sprouts and bamboo shoots, there's corn, broccoli, snow peas, lightly fried tofu and both straw and oyster mushrooms. A big plus here is the staff, which is genuinely eager to please. The new owner even gave us a tour of the place, which will feature two big dining areas and a banquet room. (Right now, only one dining room is in operation.) While not every dish hits the target, it's clear that this place is aiming high. Once the New Hunan Restaurant manages to hit a few more bull's eyes, its performance will match its promise.