hunan home's in chinatown....too soon?
How soon after a trip to China should one try Chinese food again? A question that has been swirling around my head since my return a couple months ago. The first answer that pops into my mind is "NEVER AGAIN!" But that is a little harsh. Sometimes choices are made for you whether you want them to be or not.
Me and the SO went to an off-beat, avant garde show thing recently and it just happened to be at a ramshackle theater space in Chinatown. We'd gotten there early and the show was running late, thus we had time to grab a quick bite. Sadly, that quick bite meant eating at one of the nearby establishments--all of which were Chinese food. After a "discussion" about whether starvation was an option, we singled out 3 spots to walk by and check out their inevitable menus in their windows.
The first place had a smallish menu, but looking inside, they place was empty on what should be a busy Saturday night. Not the best sign. The second place had a few more folks, but the menu was boring and all the tables were of the plastic and fold variety. The third spot had a decent standard menu, booth seating and seemed to be jumping with a mixed crowd. We took that as a good enough sign to give it a go. Thus began our culinary jaunt at Hunan Home's, though that apostrophe on home was throwing me as to what is was possessive of. A question that went unanswered.
When we walked in we thought we might have to wait a bit for a table, but the lady waived us and brusquely said "to the back," where we headed to another larger room that was barely filled. At least it was quieter. As we sat down at our table against the back wall, I leaned on the table and my hand stuck to the sticky top. The waiter then pulled a wet towel out of his back pocket, swirled it across the table then plopped down our napkin wrapped cutlery and menus, said "I bring tea," and left. Okay, so far, just like China.
The menu is big in the sense that it comprises about 4 pages and when held upright, stands about 2 feet tall. At least that is what it seemed like. Perusing through the choices, all the usual suspects are here from sweet and sour to chow mein to kung pao. We decided to stick with the basics and kick things off with some pot stickers.
First boiled then pan fried pot stickers filled with ground pork and cabbage. Sure, one was a little on the burnt side, but they came out hot and steamy and that little crusty outer texture I kind of liked instead of say a straight up steamed on which could get gummy. For $6.50 they were pretty good. On the larger size and filled heftily with the pork cabbage combo. With a little dip into some soy sauce, they held together well and actually tasted kind of fresh made. In fact, I know they were fresh made because when I went to the restroom to wash my sticky hand I saw the lady making them.
There she is! In the basement of the restaurant, just around the corner from the toilet sitting on a box, on the floor, filling the dumplings with the ground pork mixture from a bowl in front of her. But, you know whatever, at least she wasn't out in the alley doing it. I knew this when I ordered them, I figured I could see if she was doing a good job. Apparently she was, both me and the SO liked them.
We wanted to go seafood this night and got the mu shu shrimp sauteed with onions (green and white), egg, mushrooms, cabbage and bamboo shoots. Served with a side of hoisin sauce and some of those pancakes, which are more like small tortillas for $9.75. This pretty much sums up American Chinese food in a nutshell. Paired down and basic with a side of sweet sauce that tastes like plum jam and some form of bread. In a simple stir fried way, this dish is fine if unexciting. Outside of the hoisin there wasn't much flavor to be had here and in the truest since, what you see here is what you get. The shrimp was cooked nicely and the vegetables were sauteed to the point of done without being soft and soggy. The four pancakes were also softly steamed and slightly sticky. It's a nice size portion and enough for two folks to share easily and still get you fill of shrimp. It's a fine, safe choice for the unadventurous.
Staying in the shrimp vein, we got the shrimp with lobster sauce. Shrimp, green peppers, onions and minced pork in a black bean sauce for $12.50. When this hit the table I swear it jiggled a little like jell-o. I can't say this was the most appetizing thing to look at in all it's yellowish, viscous glory. I came very close to not eating this as it was just too close in look and possible texture of the food horrors of China and I began to think we should have reconsidered the starvation option. The SO is always game for anything and dived right in while I possibly threw up a bit in my mouth. They said it wasn't as bad as it looked and while dubious, I spooned and glopped some onto my plate.
Well, it was served hot. The handful of shrimp you get (the other dish had more) were cooked right, the peppers still had crunch and the ground pork, well, it was fine though I'm not convinced it is a proper accompaniment to shrimp or a sauce with "lobster notes." This dish was a bit on the salty side. The sauce was almost like they took some egg drop soup and added cornstarch or flour to it till it thickened then added everything else. And the black beans were also like, what? In the grand scheme of things, it didn't taste bad, it was just an odd melange of stuff in a super thick gravy like sauce. I really think the texture just threw me and maybe if this had been a straight up stir-fry, I could have enjoyed it. As is, not my thing. The SO didn't hate it, didn't love it either, but wouldn't dismiss it out of hand like me. Still, the menu seems to have many other things you should probably get instead.
Yes, we ended with the ubiquitous fortune cookie. An end of meal "treat" that was created right here in San Francisco's Chinatown. God, I hate these things, always have. The fortunes never make sense and the cookies taste like stale almond crackers to me. I don't even bother with these anymore which is perfectly fine with the SO as they are quite content to have mine. To each his/her own as far as this sad excuse for a dessert goes. They are as bad as desserts in China are, so at least you'll know what I went through.
After eating here I did a little research on this place and found out it has some high ratings on Yelp (for Chinatown places) and seems to be one of those places folks recommend to others to try. And to be honest, I kind of see why. It is, if nothing else, the truest form of Americanized Chinese food. Nothing too wild and crazy going on here flavor or price wise. It's the kind of place tourists rate high and tell their friends about probably because they were able to eat here, not over-spend and not get sick while on vacation. And considering some of the places I've been in this city, that's probably worth a couple stars on Yelp itself.
I'm sure there are a core of folks in town who enjoy this place and that's fine. Service is fast, if abrupt, food does come out of the kitchen hot and steaming and I did like those hand made pot stickers. While I wouldn't really give this place 4 stars, I will say it is good enough in a pinch, which we were in at the time. It is also a good place to take your parents or relatives when they come to town too as they'll get food that is safe, familiar and won't upset their stomach. Then they can go home and regale their friends how you took them to a "real Chinese restaurant in that there Chinatown," you can be happy you did them a solid and go back to your favorite dim sum spot that they'd never even step foot in.
And no, I won't be having Chinese food again anytime time soon after this either.