Restaurant Review: Hunan Restaurant
There’s a spot at a North Lamar mini-mall serving excellent jajangmyeon
Reviewed by Emily Beyda, Fri., March 2, 2018
"Somebody needs to talk to them about the lighting," my friend said as we slid into a beige booth along the wall at Hunan Restaurant. It's true. The place is lit with a serene brightness that I found strangely comforting, reminiscent of a suburban ballet studio with its shiny pearl wallpaper and wall of mirrors. Everything is clean and cheerfully no-nonsense, a reflection of their approach to Korean-style Chinese comfort food. Walking in the door, you're greeted by a stylish little grandmother with an immaculately curled silver perm and hot-pink lipstick. This seems to be an all-female operation. Both servers were beaming women with excellent haircuts, and the tables around us were filled with groups of girls eating enormous bowls of noodle soup. Even the logo is a lady – a little cartoon slip of a thing winking down from the wall. The lone couple, sitting side-by-side in a booth along the wall, looked out of place.
Hunan is known for their jajangmyeon, the Korean-Chinese classic noodle dish served in a sticky-sweet mixture of soybeans and flour. The dish is so famous in Korea that there's a jajangmyeon museum located in the restaurant that claims to have invented it. It's pretty much impossible to find in the United States, especially in Texas, which is why, when I heard there was a mini-mall restaurant off Lamar Boulevard serving it, I knew I had to make a visit.
We started with an order of pan-fried dumplings, which look exactly like tiny apple turnovers, golden-skinned crescent moons. They're amazingly crispy at the edges, filled with a springy paste of glass noodles, green onions, and finely ground pork. Brightening up the crispy-skinned dumplings with table vinegar gives you insight into why acid is so critical in good homestyle cooking: It adds a zippy kick to the savory filling, piquing your appetite for the rest of the meal.
Tempted by the table of girls tearing into a massive pile of fried meat, we followed our dumplings with an order of crispy sweet & sour pork. It's an elaborate production, an enormous platter of thickly breaded fried pork strips, mixed in with a few token slivers of green pepper and big chunks of canned pineapple. In the ban chen tradition, it's served with four sides: a small dome of fried rice with eggs, a saucer of black bean sauce, and pickled daikon. There's also a tiny bowl of creamy ginseng-spiked broth, rich and herbal, and laced with fine little shards of omelette. Unfortunately, the pork itself was a disappointment. Soggy with gloopy cornstarch-laden sauce, the dish was so intensely lemony that it tasted as if it should have been stuffed into a pie and topped with meringue. I might be the only person who thinks this, though, because on every subsequent visit there was at least one table tearing into that pork pile with expressions of great satisfaction.
We rounded things off with an order of vegetable fried rice, which was a fresher version of your American mini-mall standard – the kind of thing you'd order off a steam tray alongside an order of orange chicken. Adding some of that black bean sauce was alchemical, elevating the rice to a mind-expanding savoriness that should be impossible without meat. If you're a vegetarian craving an umami fix, this is your move.
But let's get to the essentials. There are three different iterations of jajangmyeon on the menu. On our first visit, we had them pan-fried at the server's recommendation. It sounds strange, but it reminded me most of spaghetti Bolognese: that same savory slip of sauce, deepened with a thick slick of caramelized onions, punctuated with the briny pop of tiny shrimp. As is customary, it's served with a small dish of pickled daikon, whose bright sour crunch is the perfect counterpoint to the savory knot of noodles. We returned at lunch to try another rendition of jajangmyeon, both with an eye to critical completeness and from sheer greed. The sautéed version was so delicious I found myself dreaming about it all week.
Still, I forced myself to try something new (The things I do, dear reader, for your edification ...): the gan janjaemung, which was an extra-saucy, deconstructed version of the dish. There was a big earthenware bowl full of sticky, springy wheat noodles, so long that we were unable to neatly pull them from the nest onto our plates until the waitress brought over a pair of scissors. In an accompanying hot-pink daisy print plastic bowl filled with sauce thicker and sweeter than the sautéed jajangmyeon's, shrimp joined with gingery little crumbles of fatty pork. The side dish of daikon and raw onions offered a burn that cut through the rich sweetness of the noodles, and the crunch complemented the elasticity and woke up our palates. It's one of the best things I've eaten all month, maybe all year. "I like it better than spaghetti Bolognese," said my dining companion. "This is what spaghetti Bolognese wants to be."
Although I was tempted to just order the third and final jajangmyeon, we went instead for mapo tofu, the perfect dish for an unexpectedly freezing day. Unlike the traditional oil-slicked, tongue-numbingly intense Sichuan version of the dish, the mapo at Hunan is served with the unusual additions of peas and carrots, as well as the slices of bell pepper and onions more traditional in the Korean version of the dish. There's a slight heat, but it's a slow burn that lingers at the back of your tongue, cutting through the mildness of the proteins. The primary flavor is garlic, and there's enough to scare off a whole squad of vampires. Piled on top of the small bowl of sticky rice they'll bring you (if you ask nicely), paired with cucumber pickle and a dab of pure, concentrated bean paste, this mapo has a complexity of flavor unlike any other mapo tofu I've tried.
Hunan Restaurant9306 N. Lamar