Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Learning about Hunan delights

While I was in San Francisco for the holiday vacation, I visited with a family friend at his restaurant, Henry’s Hunan. I have been going to Henry’s since I was a baby, as have many of my friends from the city. The food is comforting in its consistency, surprising in its authenticity, and totally delicious. They make perfect dumplings, soul-warming soups, intensely flavorful spicy entrees, and the best chow mein ever. I don’t particularly like chow mein because it tends to be insipid, a little gooey and with nothing in particular to recommend it unless you are one of those picky people who only eat the most basic item on any menu. I also suspect chow mein is completely americanized and has little to do with authentic food from any region in China.

However, Henry’s chow mein is really tasty. The noodles are fresh, the sauce is a little spicy, salty and complex, the vegetables are perfectly cooked. They make a few variations, including curry and Chinese smoked ham and vegetable (which is my favorite). It is basic comfort food that anyone will love, and its not bad for you either (provided you have veggies in it).
Because I only ever eat chow mein at Henry’s and because the proprietor knows I miss his food terribly when I am in Chicago, I was given the sterling chance to hang out in the kitchen and learn to make certain dishes including the chow mein. This may have been the highlight of my vacation…along with baking a couple of splendid cheesecakes, Christmas Eve, king crab and caviar, but that is another story.

I learned that chow mein is simple but its success depends on the noodle and good timing. Fresh egg noodles are key and they should be cooked to tenderness (not mushiness) in advance, tossed in a little oil and chilled. This is the critical step I have always been missing when experimenting with noodles, when I invariably end up with a stuck together mess. It prevents stickiness and clumping. The rest of the ingredients amount to whatever you feel like stir-frying, but it is important to cook any meat you’re adding in the pan first, then take it out before the noodles go in. You add it back when the noodles and veggies are almost done, right before adding sauce. Once the noodles are in, gently toss the mixture as it heats. I would tell you about the sauce, but I think it’s a trade secret…suffice to say you could use a little soy and chili flakes and it would turn out just fine…

I haven’t made it on my own yet, but I plan to this weekend and I will report back on my results. I also learned the technique for getting the dumplings crispy on one side and steamy on the rest and the myriad uses of hot beans, or fermented soybeans. More on that later, once I’ve attempted all these wonders.

Henry’s is a family run enterprise with several locations. The website lists three, but I frequent one particular outpost at Church St and 29th that isn’t mentioned due to its newness. By my reckoning, the Church St. restaurant is the best for atmosphere, management and general deliciousness (I may be biased, but I think it justified). Order the onion cake, Mo Si or Hot and Sour soup, the braised rock cod, tofu with bok choy and of course, any chow mein. They also make this strange but excellent concoction called “Diana’s meat pie,” which consists of a savory ground beef mixture, lettuce and (I think) parmesan in between two onion cakes. It sounds unlikely, but boy is it good. Really though, you can’t go wrong…

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