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Rediscovering the Long-lost Chef (Hunan Restaurant, Fresno)

In the culinary spirit of the Beijing Olympics, I'm finally reporting at last on my other meals at Hunan Restaurant. Owner/Chef Liu is a native of Beijing.

On Saturday May 10, I made a 210-mile detour on my way to Salinas to have lunch in the Big Raisin. I needed to see and taste for myself to confirm that the long-lost Chef Zhongyi Liu was indeed now a co-owner of Hunan Restaurant. In his previous gig at Albany’s China Village, I had the pleasure of 25 meals from his kitchen, and when he disappeared, I went into a deep funk. ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/40316

)

The “Chinese” menu (in English), which “Polar Bear” had been kind enough to forward to me, included many of the Sichuan standards and my favorites sparking delicious taste memories and great anticipation. Would Chef Liu’s cooking be as special as I remembered or had I gilded those recollections in this four-year absence? I wondered how good his assistants might be and about the variety and quality of ingredients available locally, knowing that both could be factors in the quality of the final product.

“Polar Bear” and his friend joined me for a late lunch at Hunan. The framed medals and awards from Chef Liu’s various competitions are displayed near the door, including a letter from the Bocuse d’Or. This is a larger showing than at China Village and I was more at ease that my trip here would pay off.

Kathy, the partner who handles the front of the house, was our server. We tried:

1. Hot and sour calamari, $6.45
A new one for me in this format, and a dish that had become a “must order” for PB. Great balance to the spicy-tart bright flavors and al dente calamari, nice knifework and presentation.

3. Spicy combination (fu qi fei pian), $6.45
The classic husband-and-wife made with shaved slices of marinated beef shank and tripe in a tongue-numbing spicy red oil. This was infused with the citrusy aroma and flavors of Sichuan peppercorns without the grit, and showed Chef Liu’s hand in the complex range of spicing that was lusty and nuanced at the same time. While intense, the saucing didn’t drown out the inherent taste of the tendon-laced beef or the tripe. I did notice that for this dish and the next, the knife work seemed a bit sloppy, but the flavor of the sauces was spot on.

8. Sliced side of pork with spicy garlic sauce (suan ni bai rou), $6.45
When this was served, Kathy said the chef had made the sauce at half-hotness because we’d ordered so many spicy dishes. That’s exactly how I used to request this dish at China Village or sometimes with no chili at all. I’ve had no luck ordering it this way anywhere else in the Bay Area because the sauce has been made ahead and no customization is possible. Chef Liu’s spin on this classic is to use less soy sauce and less sugar. He is a master at roasting the garlic to bring out the natural sweetness yet not completely mellow the pungency. In the last four years I’ve had this dish from seven other kitchens, but none have pleased me as much as returning to this version. The poached pork was soft and sweet with little change in texture from the meat to the dense white fat. However, the slices were uneven in width and some looked mangled, making me wonder if an assistant had done the cutting.

36. Szechwan style boiled spicy beef (shui zhu niu rou), $9.45
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2283/2...
This dish was another homecoming for me in the broad spectrum of flavors complicated by high notes and great depth, the chef’s signature. The most incendiary of Sichuan classics featuring slippery smooth slices of tender beef poached in red chili stock combined with aromatic celery and some greens. An extra dusting of crushed chili pepper flakes and Sichuan peppercorns plus minced garlic take it over the top in intensity.

63. Potato strips with spicy sauce, $7.75
My favorite carbohydrate to temper the firepower of the spicy beef, these potato strips are also a test for the skill of the kitchen. Seemingly a simple stir-fry of julienne potatoes, few have the chops to do it well. When this dish came to the table, first by seeing it and then tasting it, I knew that the real Chef Liu was in the kitchen. Beautiful hand-slicing of the potatoes, conserving the waxy and near-raw juicy crispness of the potatoes, perfect salting, the toasted character of the wok frying oil, and tuning in the right amount of spice to harmonize with our other dishes.

51. Dry cooked tripe (gan bian fei chang, actually intestines and not tripe), $9.45
Sections of pork intestines (aka chitlins) were dry-fried with dusky spices and roasted red chili pods. Crispy on the outside and chewy in texture, these golden brown porky bites taste like bacon on spicy steroids.

81. Green onion pancake (cong you bing), $6.50 for two
This is the only dish I wouldn’t order again. Lacking flaky layers, much too heavy and seemed like they had been reheated rather than cooked-to-order.

We also had steamed rice. I had wanted to order 80. Sesame seed flat bread (zi ma da bing), $6.95, another good heat-sopper-upper. But apparently it’s not made during the hot summer months except by special order. Serving size is generous here and we ordered enough to feed a couple more people.

After all our food was on the table, Chef Liu emerged from the kitchen with a plate of roasted chili peppers as a lagniappe. I burst out, “Tiger stripe chilis! Thank you!” and he seemed a little taken aback by my enthusiasm as well as surprised that I could identify them. I explained that I’d been a customer at China Village and knew his cooking. This was my first chance to interact with him directly, as the owner of China Village had handled all communication with the kitchen. Living in Fresno for nearly four years, he seems to speak and understand more English now, which made discussion easier. I asked about many of my favorites, and he apologized that he didn’t have as many ingredients at his disposal here, but could make them with enough advance notice.

The next lunch was Friday, May 16, with PB, “KenWritez”, and Stephanie before the weekend’s back-to-back dinner banquets.

We started with not-on-the-menu Cucumber with garlic sauce, just ice-cold thick chunks of de-seeded cucumber with a well-salted crushed garlic and oil sauce. I always find this a refreshing start, and then like to save some for later in the meal to help put out the flames. We also ordered:

87. House special noodle soup, $8.00 – The stock base for this non-spicy version of chao ma mian was as profoundly tasty as in my memories. Kathy filled up our bowls again with more of the delicious stock and said that it’s brewed fresh from a multitude of whole chickens every morning. The noodles were fresh, but no longer housemade. The soup also had slivers of seafood, stir-fried vegetables, and either pork or beef.

39. Chong Qing style spicy chicken, made with boneless chicken fillets, $8.45
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3258/2...
I asked our server if we could have this made with meat on the bone with the skin (i.e., midsection of the wing). However, it’s only available in the boneless, skinned breast meat version here except by special order. While I missed the crispy skin and richer flavor wings, this was still fantastic by any measure. Lightly dusted and expertly fried strips of white meat chicken exploded with the pungent and heady flavors and fragrances of garlic, roasted red chili pods, and Sichuan peppercorns.

47. Pork with slender bamboo shoots (aka twice-cooked pork), $8.45
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2068/2...
Polar Bear had been reading up on this touchstone of Sichuan homestyle cooking and ordering this was a must. Made with the leaner and meatier end of the belly cut, this still had enough fat to glisten on the palate with porcine richness. Salty fermented black beans, scallions (but no leeks), carmelized onions, bell peppers, a big hit of garlic, chili paste and surely some secret sauces packed a wallop of flavor.

61. Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce (yu xiang eggplant), $7.75
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2071/2...
The lavender strips of Chinese eggplant were carmelized beautifully and while softened, kept their integrity. A too much sauce for my tastes, making this dish as bit soupy, and a little too sweet. But that’s just a personal preference.

Before leaving town, I stopped by for a solo lunch on Sunday, May 18. This time I wanted to focus on noodles, dumplings, and buns for a typical Chinese brunch.

89. Noodles with pork and cucumbers in soy bean sauce, $6.95
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2026/2...
Chef Liu makes a classic Beijing style zha jiang mian (ZJM), with a slightly sweet reddish bean sauce rife with minced pork and onions, not unlike a Bolognese sauce. This was ladled over a bed of noodles with some slivered cucumbers for mixing at the table.

72. Dumplings with homemade sauce, $6.95
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/2...
Shui jiao (boiled dumplings) are not a popular order here, so thinner commercial wrappers are used rather than made from scratch. The minced pork filling, finely seasoned with scallions, ginger and garlic was as good as I remembered, and absolutely delicious with the signature medium spicy sauce topped with chopped peanuts, scallions and sesame. Kathy said that the handmade wrapper version could be ordered with a day’s notice.

Brown-bottomed baozi after a big bite showing the ground pork and cabbage filling
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3252/2...
Reading the Fresno Bee’s article on the restaurant, I learned that Chef Liu makes northern style baozi and I asked him about them. He warned me that he uses “American flour” because he gets too few orders to prep his own completely from scratch. Tasting them I figured that he’s probably using a self-rising flour, and it gives a pretty good result making a fine-grained, almost cake-like airy bun. Filled with ground pork, cabbage, salted veggies and other savories, they’re steamed and then pan-fried to have a crusty brown bottom. Dunked in the sesame-tinged dipping sauce, they’re sooo delicious and comforting, just what you want to start the day.

Cold mung bean sheets (liang pi) topped with cucumbers and chicken in garlic-sesame sauce, compliments of the chef
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2158/2...
When I ordered the ZJM, I’d asked Kathy if I could have the “cold” version to be more refreshing on this warm afternoon. She’d never heard of this before but said she’d ask the chef. Word came back from the kitchen . . . “no”. I still wanted the ZJM and was pleased with it. But soon, a small plate came out as a gift from Chef Liu. He’d used cold liang pi with some cucumber and chicken in garlic-sesame sauce to make a classic Shandong. Liang pi are the same translucent pasta in the “two sheet salad” appetizer on the menu. This was just the cooling and light touch I was looking for and a perfect dish for Fresno’s heat. While I don’t see it on the menu, this can probably be ordered readily as the ingredients would be available.

One more lunch on Sunday, June 1, to cap off my month of May chowing in Fresno for a total of seven great meals from Chef Liu at Hunan Restaurant. “ChowFun”, david kaplan, Eric, and Ruth Lafler joined me.

We had the spicy cabbage, dry cooked intestines and one cold dish that I can’t recall (probably the spicy combination or side pork with garlic sauce), repeats for me. What I do recall is that each of them was executed even better and more delicious than my earlier visits.

79. Won ton with hot oil sauce, $6.95
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3072/2...
We were surprised that these were served in soup rather than dry style. Very tasty from the layer of spiced hot oil on top, but too fiery to drink comfortably. I resorted to trying to skim some of the floating oil off to get to the broth below.

42. Crispy tea-smoked duck, half, $12.95
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3026/2...
Excellent Sichuan-style tea smoked duck served with lotus buns and Chef Liu's own sauce blend, this was the best I’ve had. So juicy and flavorful.

Other posts for Hunan Restaurant
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/529979
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/524574
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/520276
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/512948

* * * * * * * * * *
10 Beijing Dishes: What to eat at the 2008 Olympic Games in China by Fuchsia Dunlop, http://www.chow.com/stories/11258

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Hunan Restaurant
6716 N Cedar Ave Ste 104, Fresno, CA 93710

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  1. Thanks so much for the detailed write up, Melanie!

    Your mention of the potato strips caught my eye: Thanks to a menu on my doorknob, I recently noticed that a similar dish had been added to the menu of one of my neighborhood places (Wild Pepper on 26th Street in the Mission). I had never tried it. Indeed, I rarely see potatoes on Chinese menus and was curious enough that next time I was hungry and too tired to go out, hubby and I ordered the potatoes.

    Well, they were ok, cut as you describe, but certainly not cooked with that type of skill. I look forward to trying a well-prepared version for comparison.

    Anyway, you have no idea how much I am going to appreciate the time you took to write this all up. It appears almost certain that I will soon be moving to the Central Valley to accept a new job, and I have the feeling that, while I will be based in Merced, not Fresno, I will be heading to Hunan frequently when homesickness gets to be too much and I don't have time to come home to the City. Fresno hounds, I hope you will be able to join me now and then for comfort food, Chef Liu style!

    (and not to worry, we have no plans to sell the SF house, at least not anytime in the foreseable future, so I can still keep my screen name and get back to the City on a regular basis!)

    1. Wonderful write-up - and thanks for the pics. Wow.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ed Dibble

        Thanks, I wish I'd taken more photos. I especially wanted to include the pictures of the items that aren't on the menu, but that can be readily ordered. If there's a communication problem, one can print out the photo on a color printer and take it into the restaurant. When I was trying to plan the menu for the banquets, I didn't have the name of a couple of the dishes I wanted to order, but luckily I had photos from prior dinners at China Village in Albany and used them to show what I wanted.

      2. Thanks for the write-up, Melanie! That lunch we had is kind of a blur, but I do remember the tea-smoked duck being outstanding. I was surprised, because I thought that duck dishes were the chef's weak-point in his China Village days, but this was really succulent. Of course, it wasn't as good as the sticky-rice-stuffed duck at the banquet the night before, but what could be?!

        1 Reply
        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          I've had Peking duck I wasn't happy with as well as overly dried tea-smoke duck from Chef Liu. The juices in our tea-smoked duck were still flowing, which made me wonder if it was just pulled out of the smoking pan seconds before. Maybe that's the secret.

        2. Melanie, thanks so much for posting the pics and descriptions. Not only does it bring back such fond memories, but they are so useful in aiding my increasingly faulty memory (it's the first to go, and I can't recall what's second) when I want to revisit the dishes.

          I've also been drooling over your updates and taking notes on the places in the Bay area that you've scoped out in the recent past. I need to quit my day job and spend at least a month up there.

          Wanted to report that a group of us had another stellar dinner at Hunan a couple of weeks ago. I called early enough in the day and asked if Chef Liu could possibly prepare the sesame bread for us (usu. takes one day notice), Kathy checked and said sure, how many you want? It was unanimous at the table, excellent, the perfect foil for sopping up the sauces. I saw a pic of a version that you posted on the SF board that was charred on the top, this one looked more like a one pan piece of a layer cake, maybe 11-12 inch diameter, with the top covered with sesame seeds, and the green onion dispersed throughout the bread. Seriously dangerous, it would be so easy to fill up on this and miss out on the rest of the treasures. Speaking of which, starting to think about the cool weather coming and another great get together.

          Cheers,

          Dave

          1. I am fortunate enough to be in Fresno this weekend for my Mom's birthday and she requested her b-day dinner to be at Hunan. Since I live out of town, I was wondering if any of the Fresno hounds know if there is a whole-cooked fish on either menu? We really want to try a whole fish and I didn't know if I should call in tomorrow.

            Thanks!

            6 Replies
            1. re: gmk1322

              For our special order dinners, we had a fresh rock cod all three times. The chef gets his seafood delivery on Thursday for the weekend. You might want to call as soon as the restaurant opens to see if you can reserve one. The restaurant might stock some in for the weekend even if you don't call ahead, as in Mrs. Newl's post, she mentions that she was able to order it on a walk-in basis.

              For your special occasion, you'll want to study the posts linked above for the three banquets so know what special dishes to order ahead of time. That's where Chef Liu really shines.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                The Zha Jiang Mian indeed looks very good. How does it compare with the versions you've tried at Shandong places around here, was it more sweet?

                It looks like he also nailed the stock base for Chao Ma Mian (house special noodle soup), I'd love to try the spicy version.

                Any idea if he's moving back closer to SF bay area anytime soon? :)

                1. re: tanspace

                  I would say that the ZJM is closer to the Beijing style served at Everyday Beijing in San Mateo, as it's not made with black bean sauce. It is sweeter and less salty than the Korean-Chinese versions. Also the sauce didn't have any zucchini in it.

                  I think he's enjoying being his own boss in Fresno. You're an hour closer than those of us who live in SF!

              2. re: gmk1322

                Happy birthday to your mom, how was dinner?

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Thanks for the birthday greetings, I will relay them on! The food was once again PHENOMENAL, probably the best Chinese food that I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Additionally, we ordered all of our dishes from the chef's menu.

                  We started off with the Hot and Sour Calamari, perfectly cut pieces of calamari served in a light-lemony sauce with chili peppers. The cold presentation was light and the refreshing hints of lemon in the sauce were perfect for the hot Fresno weather that day (around 107F). The knife skills required to present the calamari on the dish are a true testament to Chef Liu's skill.

                  For an entree, we originally wanted to get the Szechwan Whole Fish, but when I called the restaurant they told me it wasn't a good dish for two people because of the size of the fish (3-4 lbs) so I used the previous postings to pick our entree. After an extensive search we decided to get the Crispy Tea-Smoked Duck. This is probably the best duck I have ever had the chance to eat. The duck was perfectly smoked/cooked and was served roughly chopped with lotus pockets (?), green onion slivers, and plum sauce. The lotus pockets were the perfect compliment to the smokiness of the duck and sweetness of the plum sauce. I don't know if it was proper but it was fun taking the left over pieces of duck and just stripping all the meat off the bone with the plum sauce on the side. I would love to re-order this dish next time but there is so much more I want to try!

                  As a side, we ordered the Dry Cooked Green Beans. The green beans were perfectly cooked, basically the way all green beans should be cooked, crispy flesh with a shriveled outer skin. The sauce was a mixture of soy, ginger, and garlic and complimented the perfectly cooked green beans. I probably could have finished the whole plate myself.

                  In summary, this was one of the best dining experiences I've had in quite some time. Their was a little bit of a wait that night because of two other parties ordering off the chef's menu but that extra time means that I am getting fresh, hot food directly from the chef. I had the opportunity to talk with one of the servers, Monica (I think she might be Chef Liu's daughter), after dinner about college and the food. She recommended some dishes that we try next time and informed us that the chef personally prepared all of our dishes that night. I left completely satisfied and anticipating many more delicious meals in the future.

                  1. re: gmk1322

                    Mmmm, sounds like a fitting celebration! Glad it worked out for you, and thanks for the posting.