A broad selection of Chinese greatest hits, a few clever wrinkles, and plenty of chili kick on outer Church Street
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In ages past, I belonged to a small literary society a sect, if you like. Let us call this society the Out of Print Society. (It actually bore another name, which decency forbids me from proclaiming in print.) The members of our little group met weekly at a Chinese restaurant to trade gossip and pour out the frustrations that have a way of accumuutf8g in literary life; although we did not drink beer from tankards or pound those tankards on the tabletop as a way of demanding refills, we did like kung pao chicken and Hunan fish, and we drank lots of green tea, poured from a pretty pot into dainty little cups.
The restaurant that served as our meetinghouse was Alice's, corner of Sanchez and 29th streets. The food was cheap and good, and the location was both out of the way and central, perfect for our fugitive natures. At this time, in the second half of the mid-1990s, the Chinese-restaurant picture indeed the entire restaurant picture in upper (or is that outer?) Noe Valley was ... sleepy. The whole neighborhood was sleepy, and Alice's was the jewel in the crown atop this nodding head.
Although the Out of Print Society is no more has gone out of print, we might say Alice's is still there. But these days it's facing competition as the dominant local purveyor of fine, inexpensive, and spicy Chinese food, for just a block away, over on Church Street, an outpost of Henry's Hunan Restaurant has opened, in the space that belonged most recently to Pescheria and, an iteration or two before that, the estimable but short-lived Café J.
It is one of my beloved maxims that oft-flipped restaurant locations sooner or later become sushi joints, but now there will have to be a new, or another, maxim in light of the spectacle of a Hunan enterprise moving in to cast a calm upon troubled restaurant waters. The look of the space doesn't seem to have changed much since Café J days; the footprint of the dining room is the same, with the tables laid out in a kind of backward J around a long bar. The chairs, in brushed steel or nickel, are very urban modern, as are the red-shaded halogen lights suspended from the ceiling. In a bow to Noe Valley's famed sunshine (which real estate people have a way of perceiving more keenly than the rest of us), a few tables and chairs sit outside, nestled against the building's façade.
So Henry's Hunan doesn't look like a typical Chinese restaurant. This appears to be a trend, and is a welcome one. The food, meanwhile, is outstanding and moderately priced. As at Brandy Ho's over in the Castro District, the menu includes a selection of Hunan-style smoked meats. The usual suspects of Chinese restaurants are also well-represented, from wonton soup to Mongolian chicken. But Henry's also offers some dishes I've never seen before.
One of the most memorable of these is Diana's special meat pie ($6.95), a stack of scallion cakes buffered by tasty minced meat (pork, I suspect) and plenty of shredded iceberg lettuce. The cakes take on an almost pastry-like flakiness from deep-frying, and the dish as a whole is like a cross between a club sandwich and a tostada: a layered golden disk cut into quarters you can eat with a knife and fork or with your hands, sandwich-style. (Here, incidentally, we have the heretofore unheard-of reality of a Chinese dish even an expert couldn't eat with chopsticks.)
Henry's chopsticks are the plastic kind, incidentally, which limits their utility. Dumplings ($5.50), a.k.a. potstickers, aren't chopstick-friendly in any case, so it was a relief to find them served in a shallow bowl, from which they could be fork-speared without slipping around too much. And chopsticks are blissfully irrelevant in matters of soup, such as mo soi soup ($6), a sizable bowl of steaming chicken stock thickly invested with chunks of chicken, tofu, and egg and shreds of baby-spinach leaves. This is a lovely, satisfying soup, especially in cold weather, but you should make sure you have it before the spicy stuff starts coming, or it could seem lost and pale.
And the spicy stuff is spicy, although the heat is well-controlled, like a 104 mph fastball that shaves the outside corner at the knees. Henry's special seafood dish ($10.50), a mélange of scallops, shrimp, and chunked chicken breast tossed with carrot coins and tabs of water chestnut, takes its charge from red chili garlic paste, whose distinctive flavor tends to be a little dominant. If you like that flavor, you'll like it here.
More subtle is spicy curry show main ($7.50), which can be had with chicken, pork, beef, or vegetables. I am wary of curry dishes in Chinese restaurants; too often they taste of canned curry powder, which too often tastes mostly of can a metallic harshness that overwhelms neighboring flavors, as a huge ugly building can cut off the sun to buildings around it. But Henry's curry seasoning, though almost certainly a powder (to judge by the yellow tint it imparts to the noodles: a sign of turmeric), has an attractively rounded flavor that accepts the presence of other ingredients (meat, slivered scallions, julienne red bell pepper) and doesn't stomp on them.
The dish (like Henry's seafood special) is marked on the menu with a chili pepper a sign of either welcome or warning, depending on your views about heat but the kitchen will dial down the chili charge on request. Your server will ask you how hot you like it, along a range from mild to tankard-banging.
HENRY'S HUNAN RESTAURANT
Daily, 11 a.m.10 p.m.
1708 Church, SF
Beer and wine