If you're Jewish and from New York, you know three things.
My earliest memories go back to Sunday evenings, when my family, abandoning with pagan intensity all the strict dietary provisions of keeping kosher, always went out for Chinese food.
On one memorable occasion, guilt, suffering and Chinese food all came together.
Mom and Dad were gnawing away on spare ribs. Since I was an 11-year-old wise guy, I decided this was just the right moment to start questioning the tenets of religious faith.
"Hey Dad, how come we never let anything nonkosher into our home, but it's all right to eat barbecued pork spare ribs in a Chinese restaurant?"
My father paused in mid-gnaw. My mother glared. My kid sister poked me.
"Shut up," he explained. "Just shut up."
These days I'm a lot more sensitive to the problems of immigrants and their families trying to preserve old customs in a new world. I'm sensitive, too, to the problem of finding good Chinese food in the Valley.
Luckily, there are at least two really fine Cantonese restaurants here, Big Wong and Gourmet House of Hong Kong. But what about the spicy, fiery cuisine of other regions? Hunan, Mandarin and Szechuan cooking have almost taken over the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco during the past 15 years. Here, though, the prospects are not quite as hot.
Hunan Yuan looks like it's been furnished by Decors R Us, Chinese restaurant division. A half-dozen Chinese lanterns, some Chinese prints and a few artificial plants provide most of the adornment. The outer walls are ringed by maroon booths, with tables set up in the center. No pretension here. After our food came, though, it was clear that Hunan Yuan puts its efforts into feasting the senses of taste and smell, not sight.
We noticed that the menu did not say, as so many do, "No MSG," but our server assured us our dishes could be prepared without it. We didn't miss it.
Our first course, hot-and-sour soup, was a bit short on solids. The usual suspects of shredded pork, tofu and scallions were there, but not enough to dent the spoon. Not until the second bowl did the soup begin to give off that wonderful tang that smacks your sinuses and comforts you on a chilly February evening.
Like the soup, our four dishes came in large portions. But all seemed toned down for sensitive American palates, lacking the fire that arouses the agony and ecstasy of this sort of cuisine. If you like it hot, you're going to have to ask for it.
We were intrigued by the sauteed, hot-and-spicy lobster, both by its description and reasonable price ($8.95). It came just as the menu promised-real lobster chunks (not that dreadful processed fish product that restaurants sometimes try to pass off as seafood) heavily seasoned with garlic and ginger. It rested alone in an offbeat thick, sweetened, tomato-based sauce. The contrasting balance of flavors-the zing of ginger and garlic, the tart of tomato and the tickle of sugar-was unexpected and pleasing.
But the menu was not altogether honest when it said the dish was "recommended for those who like it hot." I've had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that gave off more heat.
With the other items, all starred on the menu as hot and spicy, it was much the same story-wonderful flavor, but short on oomph. Yui-Shan spicy chicken was particularly tasty and nicely textured. Shredded chicken (everything here seems to be shredded or slivered) came with translucent sauteed slivers of cucumber and a couple of mushrooms. The crunchy cucumber contrasted nicely with the tender chicken.
The most surprising taste sensation of the evening was the family-style bean curd. Bean curd has been banned from our home ever since my wife tried to make something she called "meat loaf" out of it ten years ago. My kids moaned when I ordered it, and the groaning reached a higher pitch when they discovered it came surrounded by broccoli and the ubiquitous water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.
Still, they took a nibble. My wife and I were stunned when they asked for more, since the dish combined the twin devils of unfamiliarity and reasonable nutrition. Large cubes of bean curd came lightly sauteed in a pleasant brown sauce, with crunchy vegetables making a nice foil for the soft tofu. Again, even though the bean curd is featured on the menu as a hot-and-spicy item, the heat was clearly turned down way low.
The only dish that was less than satisfying, from a flavor point of view, was home-style spicy pork. This time the shredded pork came with shredded carrots and celery. But the chef must have had a momentary lapse with the soy sauce, because it was too salty even for my salt-loving family.
The generous portions, the appealing flavors and reasonable prices (only seafood and duck dishes cost more than $6.45) make Hunan Yuan a west-side winner. But if you want to set your lips aflame, you'll have to start the fire elsewhere. One place I looked was Golden Phoenix, a northern-style Chinese restaurant. In our quest for fire, our party once again ordered strictly the starred dishes on the menu. But Golden Phoenix turns it down so low that not only does the heat fail to register but, all too often, so does the flavor.
It's too bad, because this is a really nice-looking place. Tucked away in an unprepossessing strip mall on 16th Street, the restaurant raises hopes in your taste buds by immediately satisfying your eyes.
Red-bright red-is the dominant color here. The ceiling, with its ornate designs, is worth a crick in the neck. Suspended from it are elaborate Chinese lanterns, while the walls show off Chinese artwork.
And the first sight of our food seemed so promising. The hot-and-sour soup had satisfying chunks of pork, tofu and vegetables swimming in it, and even offered up several large shrimp. But the key element of this dish-its pungent, sinus-clearing kick-never showed up. This is how the soup would have tasted, I thought, if I had a cold.
Unfortunately, the other dishes never got my taste buds in gear, either. It's true that after years of spicy eating I might need more of a jump-start than others to move out of neutral, but no one else at the table could detect any heat, either.
But unlike Hunan Yuan, where flavorful, mouth-pleasing food easily compensated for the unfulfilled promise of fire, Golden Phoenix served some pretty bland concoctions. The smallish portion of double-cooked sliced pork had little imagination or flavor. Strips of sauteed pork surrounded by water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and green onions rested in an utterly uninteresting brown sauce. This tasted as if it were poured from a ten-gallon container of Double-Cooked Pork in a Drum. It wasn't bad, but it was several rungs short of good.
In this restaurant, too, we tried family bean curd. But there was more in the concept than the execution. Thin strips of sauteed bean curd nestled against scallions, bits of pork, water chestnuts and some excellent black mushrooms. But the dish was less than the sum of its parts. The "hot spicy sauce" the menu promised added nothing to the components. The dish never woke up.
The kung pao chicken was completely ordinary. Pieces of diced chicken, green pepper and a few peanuts. That was it. No detectable spiciness, and little detectable flavor. The kitchen seemed to take small interest in its presentation or taste.
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For our final dish I had to take the blame, since I had fair warning. The ruby shrimp comes advertised as "fresh shrimp sauteed with diced water chestnuts, green peas, carrots in a spicy ketchup sauce."
"Ketchup sauce?" I figured something had to be lost in translation.
When the dish arrived, we saw lots of lovely, large shrimp, covered with what looked like canned peas and carrots, lapped up against-you guessed it-a sea of ketchup sauce. I don't know about you, but my idea of a perfect marriage of tastes is not shrimp and ketchup. This isn't yin and yang, it's Abbott and Costello.
Like Hunan Yuan, Golden Phoenix holds the line on prices. Only the seafood and duck dishes cost more than $6.95. And in all fairness, you need to remember that its menu, like Hunan Yuan's, offers five unspicy dishes for every supposedly fiery entree it lists. It's clear that neither restaurant is ready to stake its existence solely on the hot dishes of inland and northern China. We Valley fire-eaters still have to wait for the fire next time.
WITH THE HELP OF HIS ANCESTORS, FIFE TAK... v2-19-92