Han Dynasty in Old City
**review written by jimc.'s girlfriend**
We had been to the Exton Han Dynasty a few times, and loved it. It's a bit of a hike, though, so we couldn't believe our luck when we found out a Han Dynasty was opening in Old City!
You probably don't get why I used an exclamation point but, if you get to one of their family-owned locations, I think/hope you will. Plus, restaurants come and go in a flash around here, (anyone else miss Meju Korean at 213 Chestnut and their fiery stone rice bowl? I do.) so you need to show support where you can.
Here's ours from Tuesday, 12/29/09:
Called ahead to see that it was a BYOB. Asked if we needed to give a reservation. Guy said, "Not if you come in the next ten minutes." I love that cocky arrogance, like he might get slammed at any moment. Loved it.
Walked in early, like 5:30 PM. Owner sat us. Asked if we'd been to his other locations. Told us he didn't have a menu, per se, but just to tell him the kind of things we like to eat, and he'd hook us up.
He (don't know his name, but I've read online that it is Han, which is coincidental, if true) said "People ask me what my favorite restaurant in Chinatown is and I tell them 'I don't have one' because I think each chef has a specialty any place you go."
We were all about having a surprise meal of the chef's selection and gave him the go-ahead with glee. We asked for: one soup, three appetizers, and one entree. We were given peanut sauce-filled rice ball desserts on the house.
[Total bill was $56 and change for those who need the info. so you can get on with your day.]
1.) Fish in Pickled Vegetable Soup - okay, I have no idea what fish was used (tilapia would be my guess) but it was the best, most firm, tender, flavorful, fresh fillet as I've ever had in a soup. It was a simple yellow, (maybe miso-based?) cloudy broth, with pickled leaves of cabbage or bok choy, that included the hearts. Rustic comes to mind - fish, broth, and pickled leaves/hearts. Boom. Done. Mmm.
2.) Spicy Noodles with Minced Pork - owner brought it out in a bowl and mixed it together right there on the table in front of us. The heat of the chili oil was right on for those who love a spicy dish. The noodles were cooked perfectly and the meat was plentiful. Also, when you dipped in for seconds, the noodles were still hot. Don't know about you but, oftentimes, food in restaurants seems to cool off by the time you go back for more.
3.) Wonton in Chili Oil - sprinkled with sesame seeds, these fiery pillows of pork wontons were a slippery challenge to pick up with chopsticks but, with a gulp of wine, we were right back into it again. I told the guy we liked spicy and he came through for us.
WARNING: don't say it if you don't mean it!
4.) Cold Rabbit w/ Peanuts, Chili Oil & Black Bean Sauce - clunker of the bunch, if we were being dead truthful, but only because each bite-size piece of rabbit included the bone of the bunny. So don't go popping these in your mouth, willy-nilly, like we did. You must suck on them, I think, then pile up your bones on your appetizer plate and hope you won't be chastised for your lack of knowledge on how to eat these morsels of meat.
5.) Quick Stir Fried Cucumber - the owner said it was the staff dinner, but came around with the platter and offered us two pieces on the house. I told him "I would eat that every day!" His reply? "You'll have to get a job there, then." I got schooled!
Okay, if you're still reading, don't call us pigs because we ordered all this food. We're gluttons. And, yes, we actually took home leftovers. Oink.
6.) Pork Dry Over Flame - [owner called it that - didn't have an official name yet] came out, sauce sizzling in all its flaming glory, in a saute pan with side handles, balanced precariously atop a "Sterno-like" cube-fueled contraption. I say "precariously" 'cause I almost knocked it over. What? I said, almost. They would still have me back.
I said I was pulling out my camera when, at the same time, the owner jokingly asked, "Where's your camera?" NOTE: to capture this dish without a digital art degree is pointless, but I did my best.
The Szechuan peppercorns the chef threw in bit our tongues with a numbing effect I've never experienced in my life. I thought it was cool, though, and said to the owner (who was hanging out, watching us enjoy this dish) that it would be a good alternative to Novacain. Which, what with Eastern medicine and all, I'm pretty sure it's been done a few times.
He indulged my ignorance and said that Chinese will put it up under their top lip, then hit it with an ice cube after. Great party trick!
The rest of the dish included stellar pieces of fresh, delicious bamboo shoots, portobello, red pepper, chile pepper, Szechuan peppercorns, pork, and snow peas. I was in heaven. Jim didn't care for the peppercorns. JUST LOOK OUT FOR THEM IF YOU'RE NOT INTO NUMBNESS. It goes away, eventually, but you're riding the wave for about five minutes.
Overheard the owner telling another dining couple they'd opened their doors last Thursday (12/24) and that he'd already been written up in the Philadelphia paper. He was discussing a future of possible locations in Boston and Florida. The ambitiousness of his vision is noteworthy. Or just super-cocky. Either way, we're personally glad his vision brought him to Old City, and we can only hope he sticks around for a while.
Han Dynasty - BYOB
108 Chestnut St.
Philadelphia, Old City
I enjoyed reading your review. I thought your pictures were pretty darn good. Despite having just finished dinner, my mouth is watering at the thought of those peppercorns. My favorite dishes so far are the fish with hot dry pepper (loaded with szechuan peppercorns) and the sauteed snow pea greens when they're in season (by the way, does anybody know when that would be?) but next on our list to try is the chicken or fish hot pot. I know where I'll be going on Friday :)
Dropped in on Han last night (NYE) in Old City. Was on the way to see the 6 PM fireworks but wanted to pay my respects and get a great dish or 3.
Quiet when we dropped in. Han remembered me by name, even tho we hadn't crossed paths for a couple of months. I live just a few minutes from the Exton location so have become friendly with his mother there.
Insisted on the Dumplings in Chili Oil (had been Jonesing for that dish for the whole ride in) but left the rest up to his recommendations, which proved to be the 'only' way to go. (insert attribution to GF here). Out came 3 dishes, including the fiery Pork Dry Pot mentioned above; great dish, loved the bamboo shoots. A twice cooked fish had a crispy almost sweet crust surrounding beautiful firm morsels. Spicing was a bit more subdued, which is popular with 'white Americans' as Han related. Last dish was a sautéed spinach redolent with garlic. Good thing that the GF and I are on familiar terms.
While in the midst of this feast, we were interrupted by a whiz,bang, boom. Yes, we had missed the fireworks but they were right outside the door.
One word of caution. Don't discuss your Chinese horoscope with Han. I could have lived without knowing that 2010 will not be a good year for me. Counting on the good news being lost in translation from wholesale grocers complimentary calendar that he used for reference.
By the time we left, the place was bustling, great sign. Although Exton will remain my mainstay I will certainly be back when I can find parking....