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Is Brandy Ho's Hunan Going Downhill?

Yesterday I went to Brandy Ho's Hunan Food on 217 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco for lunch. I've always enjoyed their Gon Pao Chicken because they make it so spicy. Also, I like how they wok it right in front of you so you get to see it being made while you're sitting there. I got it as a lunch special. It came with an onion cake, hot and sour soup, and cold noodles covered with peanut sauce and cucumber slices. When the main dish arrived with the bowl of white rice my mouth watered. I like how at Brandy Ho's they use a minimum of sauce so the food looks and tastes fresh and sumptuous. Also, they don't use MSG like many other restaurants. I put a piece of chicken in my mouth and suddenly my meal took a turn for the worse. My mouth did not pucker. My eyes did not water. In fact, nothing happened. Nothing. That's because there was no spice. None. Nothing. There was absolutely no flavor to the chicken. Something had gone terribly wrong. I got the server's attention and pointed out to her the problem. She told me that they don't make any dishes spicy and that you have to request the dishes be made spicy if you want them that way. My mouth dropped open. I wasn't going to argue with her. The menu clearly stated the dish was spicy and it is called Brandy Ho's Hunan Food, after all. I explained this to her and told her how whenever I've eaten there, the food has always been spicy when I order it, but she just kept insisting that they've never served spicy food and I should have made a special request if I wanted it to be that way. Needless to say, I did not finish my meal. I haven't been to Brandy Ho's for a few years so I don't know what has happened. Has it gone downhill or did I just happen to have lunch there on a bad day?

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  1. Sorry your lunch wasn't to your liking. I know the board doesn't have much love for Brandy Ho's but I do like it. I usually order takeout or delivery. My favorite items are dry green beans,sticky rice,sweet/sour pork,walnut prawns,and kung pao chicken-probably considered to be Chinese/American rather than purist Chinese. Anyway, they have a nifty online ordering feature off their website which does let you pick the heat intensity from not hot to extra hot. I have tried not hot and hot and yes the hot was spicy and had a kick to it. There delivery area is mostly downtown and arrives quickly.

    1. Had dinner with some relatives from San Jose yesterday evening in Brandy Ho's, and thought it was one of the best meals I've had in Chinatown. We ordered:
      - Gon Bao chicken;
      - Beancurd with meat sauce (ma-po tofu);
      - Stir-fried string beans;
      - Beef with peppers & spicy bean sauce.

      We did tell our waitress to make sure the dishes are cooked the "authentically Chinese way" and that the heat factor to be way above Brandy Ho's "Extra spicy" scale.

      All the dishes are very tasty, though still not as authentically spicy as I'd expect Hunan food to taste like. To achieve that, they'd need to put in perhaps 5 times as much chiles, which was probably beyond the comprehension of the largely Cantonese chefs in the kitchen.

      1. I used to work in the area and we often went for lunch and were always very happy. I'm talking 10 years ago! Some months ago a group was in from out of town and they wanted Chinese and someone booked us into Brandy Ho's. I was actually embarassed - the food was pretty bland and tasteless. We got the same lecture about how they don't serve spicy food - a new one on me! It didn't help matters that we had some in the group who insisted on ordering their own dish and wanted zip, zero, nada spice. I assumed at the time that this was part of the reason that the entire meal was so bland. While I can't recall specifics, I was embarassed because the out-of-towners so wanted Chinese and was very disappointed in the quality of the food.

        1. I wonder if it has something to do with Brandy Ho's opening a branch in the Castro. They may have figured that not spicy would be the appropriate default for a non-Chinese neighborhood, and have made it the MO at the original branch to be consistent.

          AFAIK Henry's Hunan still will dish out seriously spicy food, and it's always been much better than Brandy's in any event.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Xiao Yang

            Didn't know about the Castro branch, but I totally agree on Henry's - I prefer it and go there. Which is why I was so annoyed at my friend for picking Brandy Ho's in the first place. You'll love this - he selected it because it was the "best" Chinese restaurant in SF - per City Search. Argh...I nearly strangled him!

            1. re: dinnerout

              According to this October 30 Tablehopper report, it may be open by now. They were to feature -- get this -- Blue Bottle Coffee!


          2. I used to live in SF and was visiting this weekend. When I lived there I used to love Brandy Ho's b/c it was so close and pretty well priced. We had a great meal there on Sat. (plenty spicy by the way, and I have no fear of heat)...actually, the waitress asked us how spicy we wanted our dishes. We had the house cured ham with garlic which was great, and then the deep fried dumplings (guilty pleasure, but so good). Also had the stir fried string beans which never disappoint. I've always known that it didn't get much love on this board, but among my friends who lived there it was popular.

            1. Iv'e been going here regularly since the mid-80's. It's still one of my favorite restaurants in the city. They usually ask what temp you want. Sometimes I do find it's not as spicy as I would like but none the less tasty. I say give it another shot.

              1. link

                Brandy Ho's Hunan Food
                217 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

                1. I think Brandy Ho's offered spicier fare in the early days, when they were stalking Henry's Hunan. Eventually they closed their Broadway location and concentrated on tourist and occasional Chinese food eaters at their Columbus Ave. location, dumbing down the food at some point, but I think that was many years ago.

                  Any reports on their new Castro location out there?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Xiao Yang

                    I went a few weeks back. Had hot and sour soup and the pork meat sauce noodles. Forgot to specify spiciness and both came back wimpy. Also, the soup spoons are an annoying square shape, which is very pretty but makes it difficult to actually get the soup into your mouth. Might go again to see how they do when you ask for it seriously spicy.

                    Which Henry's Hunan location should I go to to compare? Haven't been to any other Hunan restaurants in the Bay Area yet.

                    1. re: bigwheel042

                      I'd go to the Sansome St. location, it's the flagship and the only one open on weekends (the Natoma branch is open on Saturday but not Sunday). I believe Henry runs three of them, and the Natoma branch is owned by his sister. There are varying reports on whether the food differs among the locations.

                      1. re: bigwheel042

                        The Sansome location's the nicest, and it has a nice selection of draft beer.

                    2. I don't think it was a bad day. I think BH's has changed, and the change is for the worse. I've lived here since 1991, and I've been to BH's probably 15 times. The last three times, however, were not nearly as good. In fact, the last time -- in December -- my partner and I decided that we were "done" with BH's. The dumplings were thick and starchy and needed a ton of chile sauce to make them taste like anything and the chicken was rubbery and flavorless...nothing like it used to be. We both vowed that we were "done" with BH's as a result, and we haven't been back. Henry's is less convenient for us, but we've been going there more now. And, it is delicious and spicy and fresh...consistently.

                      1. Just ordered delivery from the Castro street operation, and thought the results (steamed dumplings, three delicacies, lamb with string bean) were excellent.

                        I've eaten there sporatically over the past 5 years, and certainly their level of spice is erratic. On one visit a few years ago, they had a note saying they had changed or resourced their chili pods, and they were significantly spicier than before. I'm a lover of spicy food, but we ordered 'medium' heat that day and it was plenty hot.

                        Fast foward to this weekend, and 'medium' was a fair to low amount of spice. The food, though, was quite good. Excellent fresh ingredients (including the seafood).

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: epicurious_sf

                          link to castro

                          Brandy Ho's Hunan Food
                          4068 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

                        2. Brandy Ho's was good when it was still popular in the early 90's, back when they had a second location across the street on Broadway... every table used to be packed. The last couple times I went it was empty, and the food had declined in quality. I guess they just weren't doing the volume to keep the food fresh like in the old days. They're not the only Asian establishment to start cutting on spices, and default to serving "safer" flavored food when business declines.

                          They used to ask how spicey you wanted to food, and the peppers on the menu marked the spice heavy Hunan dishes.