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Hunan Restaurant's Diana Chung

  • s

From today's Chron: an obit for Diana Teh-Yung Chung, co-founder of the old Hunan Restaurant on Kearny. It grew into the four-restaurant Henry's Hunan group, named for her husband, Henry, who survives her. For a time Diana Chung had a dish on the menu named after her, a fried meat pie called Diana's Special.

Link: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi...

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  1. I met Mrs. Chung many years ago, and she was indeed a charming lady. If I'm not mistaken, however, her restaurant was on Sansome st...not Kearny.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jim H.

      The original Hunan was on Kearny. It was definitely a "hole-in-the-wall" place, very similar to House of Nanking's digs (possibly the same room; I recall it as being somewhere very close to where HoN is now).

      The Sansome St. place came later, and is much bigger.

      1. re: Jim H.

        The original opened in 1974 on Kearny. It became wildly popular after Tony Hiss, writing in the New Yorker, called it "the world's best Chinese restaurant." That led to the opening of the bigger Sansome location in 1979 (still open, and the flagship of the Henry's Hunan fleet). The Kearny Street place had to close after the 1989 quake, and I think the building was eventually razed.

        I'm sorry I never had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Chung. I did meet Henry some years back, a friendly and garrulous fellow. He's the cover model on the restaurant's cookbook, by the way.

        1. re: squid-kun

          Thanks, you've given me a better fix on the location. Closer to Jackson St. than I remembered. I recall my first visit there. I went for an especially fiery Hunan ham dish. The Hunan didn't have a beer and wine license, and I refused to order Coca Cola on principle. As soon as I finished and paid, I dashed up the street to Vesuvio's to quench the fire with two or three pints of draft beer.

          Jackson and Kearny still seems to be the center of the Hunan restaurant universe (at least outside of Changsha), what with Hunan village, Chef Jia, Brandy Ho's and Hunan Home all paying homage to the ghost of the original Henry's.

          1. re: Gary Soup

            I liked that great little window table for two, or maybe one and a half, where you had to bend yourself like a folding chair just to get to your seat.

            If Hunan had offered delivery service to the second floor at Vesuvio's, it would have changed my life. Maybe not lengthened it, but I wouldn't have cared.

      2. j
        Jonathan King

        I lived close by the Kearny St. restaurant in 1974, and ate there often, usually with a group of three or four friends -- we became regulars, knew Diana somewhat and Henry very well, and usually were able to jump the long post-New Yorker lines by chumming up with son Marty, who worked the outside line like a pro. We did even better if we went with one particular friend, who worked in Mayor Moscone's office and swung Henry Chung an offical mayoral proclamation, which he hung proudly on the wall just inside the door. When he was with us (or, as Henry no doubt saw it, when we were with him), there was essentially no line at all. Together the four or five of us carved a broad swath across that menu -- ordering everything on it many times over, and enjoying 'special' dishes that Henry would regularly bring over to watch us eat. There was a 1000-year-old-egg concoction that he loved dearly, as did I ... though no one else really did. The original cooks were three women trained by Diana -- the best of them, named Song, moved back to China (or was it Hong Kong?) a long time ago...after some time at the restaurant, and it was never quite the same thereafter. (Another of the three was Lilly, who left & opened her own place on Hopkins Street in Berkeley, which is still there -- next to Monterey Fish. She made some of the old Hunan dishes for the first little while she was open, but soon gave that up and never made anything particularly noteworthy again....

        1 Reply
        1. re: Jonathan King

          That was just a lovely bit of writing -
          I'd never been, but can clearly see it from your description. It was very evocative of time and place.

        2. I can't resist another mention. I first went to Henry's in the late 70's when I was very young. I continued to eat there in the early 80's, when it was on Kearney Street (at Jackson, I think). I can't remember what took me there originally, but I was a financial district worker and it was very popular.

          The chili peppers in the dishes were so very hot it seared your tongue, but if you went regularly you could build up a tolerence. I had an exciting lunch with a sexy man once, where we both were sweating from the heat, and, yes, we did a nooner directly after.

          I bought Henry's book and made some really terrific dishes from it. The excellent hot and sour beef can be made at home. Another very successful dish was a whole fish, I used trout, slashed, marinated, coated with cornstarch and deep fried in a wok.

          Once I made a dinner so hot that everyone got high from it. Our scalps were tingling with pleasure.

          I now favor the Henry's on Sacramento, run by daughter Linda. Have not been in a while, and now I only order Harvest Pork--maybe my favorite dish on the planet, one I have not been able to duplicate.

          1. I get takeout from the Henry's on Natoma all the time and Diana's delicious meat pie definitely lives up to its name. It has a light, flaky crust, lettuce and a light, creamy sauce that looks somewhat like sour cream but isn't. It's nice and greasy to make sure to get extra napkins.

            There was an article in the Chronicle recently about a guy who is trying everything on their menu. The link is below.

            Link: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi...

            1. Waiting on line: The line went from the register a few feet inside the restaurant, through the narrow door, north along Kearny hugging the façade as far as necessary, often over 20 feet. There was just enough room for whichever body in the doorway and a major fraction of another body-width for squeezing by. Marty would stick his head out into this space regularly, as if to admire the line's length, but mostly to check for the arrival of notables such as we. Personally, I always felt Marty's barely scrutable gaze (subtle variations in rapidity of tic and length of eye contact and their relevance to how many earlier-arriving seekers we would be allowed to cut in front of were always my responsibility to assess) was mostly meant to remind us of the intense value of the prize we sought. Berlin nightclub gatekeepers rate as minor satraps in comparison.

              Connections: Henry appreciated his Mayor's Proclamation, but gauged its value well (the Mayor's office employee Jonathan talks about also had one inked for his girlfriend when she successfully hurdled a particularly daunting college final). What was better appreciated was the lightspeed with which Henry got approval to expand into the empty storefront to the north, a miracle our friend always carefully claimed could only have been peripherally related to the conversation he had on the subject with Bernie Teitelbaum, Moscone’s Director of Public Works.

              Lilly’s in Berkeley: I always felt I’d contributed substantially to cook Lilly’s decision to open her place in Berkeley (where I live) not only because of my confidence in the business worth of the idea, but because, of course, I dreamed of having my Hunan food ten miles closer. The restaurant did poorly because of its hopeless location. I felt responsible, and ate there constantly in spite of the somewhat lesser quality of the cooking. Its major failing was Lilly’s inability to smoke ham (which requires a special oven), the crucial ingredient in what I’ve always considered Hunan’s signature dish. Lilly’s minister husband suffered an out-of-the-blue fatal heart attack three years in, and Lilly sold the place a couple of years later, after having indeed abandoned much of the traditional menu.

              Sang, the star cook: The recipes were Henry’s, but the execution all Sang. Though she visited China after leaving Henry’s employ, she returned soon after to open her own place in San Jose with son Bosco (still open when I last asked four years ago), who had waited table at the original restaurant. Brother Francois continued to wait at the Sansome location for many years afterwards, while brother Terry left the biz entirely. Sang never tired of explaining technique to me, and let me prepare dishes on my own a couple of times (under her watchful eye) at the less cramped Sansome location.

              Brandy Ho: I have to admit to occasional furtive meals at one or the other of Brandy’s two North Beach locations, furtive because Brandy had lifted every one of his recipes (which by law aren’t copyrightable) so faithfully from Henry’s repertoire that for more than a year (he quit as manager of Hunan when Henry wouldn’t make him a partner) his menu was a laminated xerox of the Hunan menu. Brandy keeps the lights on until midnight, covering my full hunger window, while Henry sends everyone home at 9 sharp.

              1000-year-old egg: Jonathan was right, I was slow to embrace this most unusual salad. The flavor of lime-preserved eggs takes a little getting used to. I grew to appreciate it, however, and the dish remains part of my own cooking repertoire long after its disappearance from the menu.

              Sitting in the cramped window seat opposite the register: indeed a sweet-and-sour experience, as Squid-kun recalls. My favorite table was the big one tucked into the corner where the restaurant elled to the left halfway up. Disstaff dates got the outside seats, but up against the wall I at least got to watch the cooks.

              Celebrity moment: sitting at the counter for lunch two seats off the register, when a Tony-Hiss-article-New-Yorker-under-the-arm–toting besuited greyhair wandered distractedly in and sat next to me. I went through the dissertation on the high points and pitfalls of the menu that I had thoroughly honed for such wide-eyes, and he in turn made it clear he had no use for my advice by ordering the pathetic Deluxe Vegetables. (I learned shortly thereafter that he was Herb Caen, and I assume he thought I was trying to suck up to him.) Three days later the foundational Herb Caen Hunan rave piece appeared, informed I guess less by his nose and buds than by his nose for buzz.

              Reminiscences: In the restaurant's early years, I watched a business-executive-garbed woman slather an onion-cake slice with hot sauce that she surely must have mistaken for strawberry jam. As I waved frantically from the other end of the counter to try to stop her, she took a huge bite and flashed me a wink to let me know she knew just what she was doing. Taking my grandfather and coterie there for his 100th birthday. He ate the whole fishhead, not forgetting to suck out the eyeballs. I’d never before realized that anything much other than the cheeks were digestible. Putting my foot down with my snobbish girlfriend and refusing to let her entertain her MLA (Modern Library Association, meat-market for humanities job-seekers) army of tony first-tier English department foodies from across the country at Rubicon when the most interesting cuisine in the city was available without calling in advance at a converted icehouse off Broadway on Sansome (It really was a bitter fight.) They were appropriately awed. (And since they were staying at the Hyatt we got all the leftovers.) I dumped her, but soon afterwards she landed a tenure-track position in one of their departments. She should mention the Chungs in her vita.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Dave Blake
                s
                Stephen M.H. Braitman

                My memories of those perpetual motion days rank similar though less detailed to my partners in feasts, Jonathan and David. Mostly I remember the urgency, the fervor, the passion, the steaming sweating faces, the manic hilarity, and the incredulity that mere food could alter one's perception of life's unlimited possibilities. It was a time. -- Stephen

                1. re: Dave Blake

                  The food: Though Diana’s youngest, Howard, made the most moving comments (that weren’t in Chinese) at the memorial, I have to admit to being most affected by daughter Sophie’s exposition on Diana’s Special Meat Pie, half of one of which, along with about half of an order of Smoked Ham, left over from my personal Diana memorial meal yesterday, awaits off-polishing in my refrigerator as I write. (I have to disagree with Home Skillet’s description: meat sauce and parmesan isn’t "creamy", at least at the Sansome location.) Much of the menu remains unchanged over its nearly 30-year span. Tofu in Meat Sauce (known everywhere else as Mabu Tofu), Hot and Sour Beef, Smoked Ham, Harvest Pork, Garlic Chicken (not hot) for the weak of mouth, the rich Chicken and Bean Sprout Salads (tahini now replaced by peanut butter, still delicious) and the sublime Eggplant Salad in thin sauce. Two of my favorite dishes, however, did not make the cut after the move from Kearny (along with the 100-year-old egg dish): thin sliced Lean Pork (cold), still the most delicious pork preparation in my memory but for Thrice-Cooked Pork, sautéed, boiled and baked-with-cabbage slab bacon with a month’s worth of cholesterol and a year’s worth of flavor. The deep-fried onion cakes used to be heftier with three instead of two layers, which also lent the dish an interesting contrast between crispness and softness. I can sum up the bulk of my Hunan-imparted cooking knowledge in a phrase: use more peanut oil, and make sure it’s fresh. I recommend Golden Lion, though Panther served me well for many years.

                  1. re: Dave Blake

                    thanks for sharing your vivid memories of the food at Henry & Diana's. re: the peanut oil - could you possibly be referring to Lion & Globe peanut oil from Hong Kong? by far the best I've run across.....smells just like fresh roasted peanuts and certainly is reasonably priced when compared to olive oils.

                    1. re: gordon wing

                      Indeed, Gordon, I misspoke, and you are exactly right. It was indeed Lion & Globe peanut oil (not Golden Lion) I was glowingly referring to. And you are also correct about its competitive price, and especially about its impressive fragrance: I always look forward to opening up a fresh bottle. But they switched to flimsy plastic five years ago, so now when I open one I decant it into a glass bottle and stick it in the fridge with a Vacu-Vin vacuum stopper. (Which means, for anyone who might be interested, that the oil solidifies and has to be out of the fridge half an hour before use, or nuked for 15 seconds on medium power.) At any rate, I didn't have a label to look at and had to, if you can forgive me for putting it this way, wing it.