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May 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Some like it hot Some like it hot (May 13, 2005)

Hunan Chili serves up spicy, tasty dishes

by Mandy Erickson

As difficult as it is to imagine an Italian kitchen without tomatoes, the first ladle of tomato sauce landed on linguini only after European explorers carried the fruit back from the New World.

Similarly, Hunan cooking took on a fiery character only after traders brought the chili pepper -- originally from South America -- to the southern Chinese province. The pepper made its way into China over the Burma Road from India and through ports along the Pacific Ocean.

At that time, China's 16th-century Ming Dynasty was especially open to foreign goods and ideas. So the pepper's use in Chinese cooking spread like, well, fire. But no chefs took to it as much as those in Hunan, where the reputation for peppery dishes exceeds even that of Sichuan cooking.

Thankfully, the chefs at Hunan Chili don't hold back on their restaurant's namesake spice. When they say a dish is hot, they mean it. And most of the recommended dishes carry that telltale chili-pepper symbol.

The owners of the Castro Street restaurant, who hail from Hunan, have created a spare, bland interior that belies the food's attitude. Off-white walls display sets of black-and-white Chinese characters, tables are covered in white tablecloths and are surrounded by nondescript black chairs. Barely audible elevator music floats through the dining area.

The best -- and spiciest -- dish I tried at Hunan Chili was one of the chef's recommendations: beef and soft tofu in hot sauce ($9.50). This was a stir-fry of tender beef slices and soft tofu chunks, served in a brown gravy sauce and coated with a bright-red fiery oil. Raw pea sprouts, added at the last minute, provided a colorful contrast and a bit of texture.

The rich sauce packed plenty of beef flavor and the tofu provided a gentle backdrop. The heat warmed our palates without searing our taste buds, though plenty of steamed rice helped quench the fire.

Not quite as spicy as the beef, the beer duck with radish ($9.95) qualified as comfort food. The dish, a stew of radishes (which taste like turnips when cooked), mild red chilies, onions and diced duck in a soy and anise-flavored broth, calmed my palate. My only complaint was that the duck's flavor was lost in the assertive broth and the two-hour-long stewing. The beer lent a richness to the broth, though I couldn't detect any beer flavor.

Not all the dishes at Hunan Chili are spicy; if you're not a pepper fan, rest assured that the menu accurately notes which dishes burn and which ones don't. A tamer dish I tried was asparagus with prawns ($9.95), one of the day's specials. This was a generous plate of crisp, early-season asparagus in a simple soy-and-garlic sauce. The vegetable was expertly cooked, but the shrimp, though fairly fresh, had a bit of muddiness from the veins. The dry, sauteed green beans ($6.95), another non-spicy dish, were garlicky and salty with a pleasant bite.

Pot stickers are always a good choice if some at the table want heat and others don't, as the dipping sauce provides the kick. Hunan Chili's pot stickers ($5.95 for six) offered a good spicy sauce, the vinegar well balanced with the soy. The dumplings were nice and crispy -- a sad rarity among pot stickers -- but the pork filling was bland.

Hunan Chili offers the classic Chinese restaurant lunch special: a stir-fry dish of your choice, with rice, egg roll and soup. In those restaurants with a spicy slant, the soup is nearly always hot-and-sour, and so is Hunan Chili's. But its version was better than most, with just the right amount of tartness and plenty of fragrant black pepper.

The vegetable egg rolls, like the pot stickers, were wonderfully crispy but their innards were dull. I liked the dipping sauce, though. It arrived in two parts, side by side in a little dish: the classic bright-red sauce and a hot yellow mustard. The two married well, and the mustard gave a different kick from the chilies -- the kind that clears out your sinuses, rather than puts your mouth on fire.

Eggplant with hot garlic ($5.95) was made with small Japanese eggplants, which gave it texture from the skin and kept the vegetable from absorbing too much oil. The components of the sauce -- salt, garlic, chili -- were well-balanced, making for a fine version of this classic dish.

Twice-cooked pork ($6.95) was less inspired: The pork was a little gamy and the sauce lacked zest. Cashew chicken ($6.50) included crisp water chestnuts, zucchini and fresh mushrooms in a slightly sweet sauce that needed a lighter hand with the soy.

Rather than serve lunches on individual plates, with a pile of rice next to a mound of stir fry, the waiters brought out the dishes and the rice on serving plates. I preferred it that way, mostly because it was easier to share meals, but also because I could spoon the stir fries on top of the rice. (The rice never really absorbs the sauce properly otherwise.)

The servers at dinner were professional and competent, though the food was a tad slow in arriving. At lunch, our waiter brought out a dish we never ordered -- pork with hot garlic sauce. When we told him we were waiting for cashew chicken, he left but returned with the pork a minute later. The cashew chicken arrived soon after.

Lunch specials conclude with a ramekin of vanilla ice cream -- an unusual ending to a Chinese meal, but one that effectively calms the palate after plenty of chilies. Fortune cookies were on hand, too.

Until its owners bought the restaurant in 2002, Hunan Chili was known as Twinkled Spring, an odd name for a restaurant but an apropos image for incendiary food. Veteran chili hounds know, however, that cold water won't put out the fire. Reach, instead, for the Tsingtao beer.

Hunan Chili, 102 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 969-8968

Hours: Open daily. Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Thursday through Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations - yes Credit Cards - yes Valet Parking - no Alcohol - yes Takeout - yes Highchairs - yes Catering - yes Outdoor seating - no Noise level - moderate Bathroom cleanliness - fine

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