Restaurants & Bars

Rediscovering the Long-lost Chef (Hunan Restaurant, Fresno)

Melanie Wong | Aug 24, 200809:27 PM     32

In the culinary spirit of the Beijing Olympics, I'm finally reporting at last on my other meals at Hunan Restaurant. Owner/Chef Liu is a native of Beijing.

On Saturday May 10, I made a 210-mile detour on my way to Salinas to have lunch in the Big Raisin. I needed to see and taste for myself to confirm that the long-lost Chef Zhongyi Liu was indeed now a co-owner of Hunan Restaurant. In his previous gig at Albany’s China Village, I had the pleasure of 25 meals from his kitchen, and when he disappeared, I went into a deep funk. ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/40316 )

The “Chinese” menu (in English), which “Polar Bear” had been kind enough to forward to me, included many of the Sichuan standards and my favorites sparking delicious taste memories and great anticipation. Would Chef Liu’s cooking be as special as I remembered or had I gilded those recollections in this four-year absence? I wondered how good his assistants might be and about the variety and quality of ingredients available locally, knowing that both could be factors in the quality of the final product.

“Polar Bear” and his friend joined me for a late lunch at Hunan. The framed medals and awards from Chef Liu’s various competitions are displayed near the door, including a letter from the Bocuse d’Or. This is a larger showing than at China Village and I was more at ease that my trip here would pay off.

Kathy, the partner who handles the front of the house, was our server. We tried:

1. Hot and sour calamari, $6.45
A new one for me in this format, and a dish that had become a “must order” for PB. Great balance to the spicy-tart bright flavors and al dente calamari, nice knifework and presentation.

3. Spicy combination (fu qi fei pian), $6.45
The classic husband-and-wife made with shaved slices of marinated beef shank and tripe in a tongue-numbing spicy red oil. This was infused with the citrusy aroma and flavors of Sichuan peppercorns without the grit, and showed Chef Liu’s hand in the complex range of spicing that was lusty and nuanced at the same time. While intense, the saucing didn’t drown out the inherent taste of the tendon-laced beef or the tripe. I did notice that for this dish and the next, the knife work seemed a bit sloppy, but the flavor of the sauces was spot on.

8. Sliced side of pork with spicy garlic sauce (suan ni bai rou), $6.45
When this was served, Kathy said the chef had made the sauce at half-hotness because we’d ordered so many spicy dishes. That’s exactly how I used to request this dish at China Village or sometimes with no chili at all. I’ve had no luck ordering it this way anywhere else in the Bay Area because the sauce has been made ahead and no customization is possible. Chef Liu’s spin on this classic is to use less soy sauce and less sugar. He is a master at roasting the garlic to bring out the natural sweetness yet not completely mellow the pungency. In the last four years I’ve had this dish from seven other kitchens, but none have pleased me as much as returning to this version. The poached pork was soft and sweet with little change in texture from the meat to the dense white fat. However, the slices were uneven in width and some looked mangled, making me wonder if an assistant had done the cutting.

36. Szechwan style boiled spicy beef (shui zhu niu rou), $9.45
This dish was another homecoming for me in the broad spectrum of flavors complicated by high notes and great depth, the chef’s signature. The most incendiary of Sichuan classics featuring slippery smooth slices of tender beef poached in red chili stock combined with aromatic celery and some greens. An extra dusting of crushed chili pepper flakes and Sichuan peppercorns plus minced garlic take it over the top in intensity.

63. Potato strips with spicy sauce, $7.75
My favorite carbohydrate to temper the firepower of the spicy beef, these potato strips are also a test for the skill of the kitchen. Seemingly a simple stir-fry of julienne potatoes, few have the chops to do it well. When this dish came to the table, first by seeing it and then tasting it, I knew that the real Chef Liu was in the kitchen. Beautiful hand-slicing of the potatoes, conserving the waxy and near-raw juicy crispness of the potatoes, perfect salting, the toasted character of the wok frying oil, and tuning in the right amount of spice to harmonize with our other dishes.

51. Dry cooked tripe (gan bian fei chang, actually intestines and not tripe), $9.45
Sections of pork intestines (aka chitlins) were dry-fried with dusky spices and roasted red chili pods. Crispy on the outside and chewy in texture, these golden brown porky bites taste like bacon on spicy steroids.

81. Green onion pancake (cong you bing), $6.50 for two
This is the only dish I wouldn’t order again. Lacking flaky layers, much too heavy and seemed like they had been reheated rather than cooked-to-order.

We also had steamed rice. I had wanted to order 80. Sesame seed flat bread (zi ma da bing), $6.95, another good heat-sopper-upper. But apparently it’s not made during the hot summer months except by special order. Serving size is generous here and we ordered enough to feed a couple more people.

After all our food was on the table, Chef Liu emerged from the kitchen with a plate of roasted chili peppers as a lagniappe. I burst out, “Tiger stripe chilis! Thank you!” and he seemed a little taken aback by my enthusiasm as well as surprised that I could identify them. I explained that I’d been a customer at China Village and knew his cooking. This was my first chance to interact with him directly, as the owner of China Village had handled all communication with the kitchen. Living in Fresno for nearly four years, he seems to speak and understand more English now, which made discussion easier. I asked about many of my favorites, and he apologized that he didn’t have as many ingredients at his disposal here, but could make them with enough advance notice.

The next lunch was Friday, May 16, with PB, “KenWritez”, and Stephanie before the weekend’s back-to-back dinner banquets.

We started with not-on-the-menu Cucumber with garlic sauce, just ice-cold thick chunks of de-seeded cucumber with a well-salted crushed garlic and oil sauce. I always find this a refreshing start, and then like to save some for later in the meal to help put out the flames. We also ordered:

87. House special noodle soup, $8.00 – The stock base for this non-spicy version of chao ma mian was as profoundly tasty as in my memories. Kathy filled up our bowls again with more of the delicious stock and said that it’s brewed fresh from a multitude of whole chickens every morning. The noodles were fresh, but no longer housemade. The soup also had slivers of seafood, stir-fried vegetables, and either pork or beef.

39. Chong Qing style spicy chicken, made with boneless chicken fillets, $8.45
I asked our server if we could have this made with meat on the bone with the skin (i.e., midsection of the wing). However, it’s only available in the boneless, skinned breast meat version here except by special order. While I missed the crispy skin and richer flavor wings, this was still fantastic by any measure. Lightly dusted and expertly fried strips of white meat chicken exploded with the pungent and heady flavors and fragrances of garlic, roasted red chili pods, and Sichuan peppercorns.

47. Pork with slender bamboo shoots (aka twice-cooked pork), $8.45
Polar Bear had been reading up on this touchstone of Sichuan homestyle cooking and ordering this was a must. Made with the leaner and meatier end of the belly cut, this still had enough fat to glisten on the palate with porcine richness. Salty fermented black beans, scallions (but no leeks), carmelized onions, bell peppers, a big hit of garlic, chili paste and surely some secret sauces packed a wallop of flavor.

61. Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce (yu xiang eggplant), $7.75
The lavender strips of Chinese eggplant were carmelized beautifully and while softened, kept their integrity. A too much sauce for my tastes, making this dish as bit soupy, and a little too sweet. But that’s just a personal preference.

Before leaving town, I stopped by for a solo lunch on Sunday, May 18. This time I wanted to focus on noodles, dumplings, and buns for a typical Chinese brunch.

89. Noodles with pork and cucumbers in soy bean sauce, $6.95
Chef Liu makes a classic Beijing style zha jiang mian (ZJM), with a slightly sweet reddish bean sauce rife with minced pork and onions, not unlike a Bolognese sauce. This was ladled over a bed of noodles with some slivered cucumbers for mixing at the table.

72. Dumplings with homemade sauce, $6.95
Shui jiao (boiled dumplings) are not a popular order here, so thinner commercial wrappers are used rather than made from scratch. The minced pork filling, finely seasoned with scallions, ginger and garlic was as good as I remembered, and absolutely delicious with the signature medium spicy sauce topped with chopped peanuts, scallions and sesame. Kathy said that the handmade wrapper version could be ordered with a day’s notice.

Brown-bottomed baozi after a big bite showing the ground pork and cabbage filling
Reading the Fresno Bee’s article on the restaurant, I learned that Chef Liu makes northern style baozi and I asked him about them. He warned me that he uses “American flour” because he gets too few orders to prep his own completely from scratch. Tasting them I figured that he’s probably using a self-rising flour, and it gives a pretty good result making a fine-grained, almost cake-like airy bun. Filled with ground pork, cabbage, salted veggies and other savories, they’re steamed and then pan-fried to have a crusty brown bottom. Dunked in the sesame-tinged dipping sauce, they’re sooo delicious and comforting, just what you want to start the day.

Cold mung bean sheets (liang pi) topped with cucumbers and chicken in garlic-sesame sauce, compliments of the chef
When I ordered the ZJM, I’d asked Kathy if I could have the “cold” version to be more refreshing on this warm afternoon. She’d never heard of this before but said she’d ask the chef. Word came back from the kitchen . . . “no”. I still wanted the ZJM and was pleased with it. But soon, a small plate came out as a gift from Chef Liu. He’d used cold liang pi with some cucumber and chicken in garlic-sesame sauce to make a classic Shandong. Liang pi are the same translucent pasta in the “two sheet salad” appetizer on the menu. This was just the cooling and light touch I was looking for and a perfect dish for Fresno’s heat. While I don’t see it on the menu, this can probably be ordered readily as the ingredients would be available.

One more lunch on Sunday, June 1, to cap off my month of May chowing in Fresno for a total of seven great meals from Chef Liu at Hunan Restaurant. “ChowFun”, david kaplan, Eric, and Ruth Lafler joined me.

We had the spicy cabbage, dry cooked intestines and one cold dish that I can’t recall (probably the spicy combination or side pork with garlic sauce), repeats for me. What I do recall is that each of them was executed even better and more delicious than my earlier visits.

79. Won ton with hot oil sauce, $6.95
We were surprised that these were served in soup rather than dry style. Very tasty from the layer of spiced hot oil on top, but too fiery to drink comfortably. I resorted to trying to skim some of the floating oil off to get to the broth below.

42. Crispy tea-smoked duck, half, $12.95
Excellent Sichuan-style tea smoked duck served with lotus buns and Chef Liu's own sauce blend, this was the best I’ve had. So juicy and flavorful.

Other posts for Hunan Restaurant

* * * * * * * * * *
10 Beijing Dishes: What to eat at the 2008 Olympic Games in China by Fuchsia Dunlop, http://www.chow.com/stories/11258

Hunan Restaurant
6716 N Cedar Ave Ste 104, Fresno, CA 93710

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