Hungry Lawyer: Café Hunan serves up authentic flavors from Chairman Mao’s hometown

Dried wild vegetables with corn buns

In March of last year, I wrote about a cozy little Sichuan restaurant in Sai Ying Pun called Bashu Garden. It became one of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood and for something spicy in general. I was sad to learn earlier this month that Bashu Garden had recently closed, not due to the typical culprits of rising rents and fickle customers but unfortunately due to the owner’s health. When expressing disappointment to friends about the closure, I was referred to nearby Café Hunan in the trendy Shek Tong Tsui area, not far from where Bashu Garden used to be.

Café Hunan is located in an unassuming storefront with a local feel, near the intersection of Water Street and Queen’s Road West, with newer branches in Wan Chai and Olympic City. Here, you are as likely to hear Putonghua being spoken as you are Cantonese.

Like Sichuanese, Hunan cuisine is known for its pungent and spicy flavor profile, but there are notable differences. For example, while Sichuan cuisine is most associated with its generous use of the numbingly spicy (“mala”) Sichuan peppercorn, Hunan cuisine is thought of as purely hot with its reliance on chilies, onions and garlic. After several recent visits (someone’s got to do the work!), I can happily confirm that Café Hunan does not skimp on these robust flavors.

The menu includes an extensive selection of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. Pork features heavily in Hunan food and is the base for several of the café’s signature dishes.

There are two pork dishes on the menu labeled, in English, “pork elbow”. The first, a “Hunan style” Braised Pork Elbow (HKD208) looked tempting but I opted for the smaller Pork Elbow with Cumin Flavor (HKD98), on the bone, as there were only two of us dining at the time. The cumin spice infusing the meat is intense and enhanced by sliced red chilies and scallions that have been stir fried with the pork bones. The combination is richly aromatic and complements the strong flavor of the dense pork.

The other signature pork dish is Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork (HKD98), as Mao himself was a native of Hunan province and pork belly is reported to have been his favorite dish. The menu depicts crispy red-skinned pork arranged in an attractive pattern, surrounded by a circle of steamed baby bok choy.

The reality was more of a mixed up bowl of red-brown roast hunks of pork belly with a mound of sliced garlic and scallions in the center — though to be fair we were warned about the discrepancy in advance and apparently the restaurant can produce the menu version with notice. The pork was satisfyingly rich and fatty with some of the tangy taste of caramelized sugar and rice wine that Mao was said to thrive on. Still, I felt this dish lacked the kick that I was expecting.

The signature seafood dish is the Steamed Fish Head with Diced Hot and Yellow Pepper (HKD138). The dish arrives in impressive fashion, with what appears to be a massive fish head split in two down the middle. The sliced head is steamed, with one half smothered in bright hot red chilies and the other with a spicy yellow pickled variety. In eating the fish, one realizes two things: first, the dish includes not just the head but a significant portion of the upper quarter of a rather large white fish; second, the fleshy parts of the fish have many small bones to avoid.

The dish is thus something to be savored and not consumed in a rush. The finished product is good, with both the pickled and red chili having infused their respective halves of fish, topped with the stronger burst of flavor from consuming the chili itself.

The best dishes however, were those featuring vegetables, and I would encourage diners to choose a wide selection. The Spicy Cauliflower (HKD78) was truly excellent. Delicate florets of cauliflower are flash-fried with ultra-thin slices of pork belly, whole garlic cloves, green and red chilies and served piping hot for a delicious, spicy and satisfying vegetable dish. The texture of the cauliflower was perfectly tender; not mushy or overcooked.

The Farm House Dried Wild Vegetables (HKD58) were also delicious. These dehydrated, mixed vegetables had also been quickly stir fried with chilies to produce a spicy and richly satisfying side. As an alternative to ordering the dried vegetables on their own, they are also available in a smaller portion accompanied by Farm House Corn Buns (HKD68), known as “mantou” in Chinese. I would highly recommend this option, as the spicy taste of the vegetable is well-paired with the soft, pillowy buns and a bargain too, with eight buns adding only HKD10 to the price of the dish.

I was further impressed by Café Hunan’s rendition of the typical Chinese dish of Steamed Eggs (HKD48). The portion was large, the eggs were silky and the quantity of soy sauce poured over the dish was just enough to form tasty rivulets in the uneven surface without overwhelming the creamy taste of the eggs themselves. The Iced Sour Spicy Fern Root Noodles (HKD48) were also a cool and delicious way to balance the meal, with the subtle taste of the noodles coming through despite the added chilies.

I still miss Bashu Garden, but it’s nice to know that not even a few hundred meters away, Café Hunan is there to satisfy spicy cravings at a reasonable price.

Café Hunan: 420-424 Queen’s Road West, Shek Tong Shui (Google Maps)

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