Don't let the cold exterior scare you off: Hunan Chef's inviting dishes will warm you up inside
DINE Many of us would probably agree that a certain sort of Chinese restaurant tends to be rather plain on the inside, with lots of linoleum, severe fluorescent lighting, and chairs that look like they were bought for 25 cents each from San Quentin Prison's annual garage sale. Hunan Chef, on Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights, gives us a variation on this familiar theme — it is ugly on the outside. It is, in truth, in a building so ugly, so faceless and phlegm-colored, that we are left to wonder how such a structure could have been conceived, let alone built.
The good news is that Hunan Chef is reasonably appealing inside. Once there, you don't have to look at the outside anymore, so that's a plus right off the bat. A friendly aquarium with languid gourami burbles near the front door, and an array of tchotchkes are arrayed around the dining room, including, toward the rear, a poster for Budweiser cerveza tacked onto the wall, for a hint of college-dorm nostalgia in multi-culti guise.
The better news is that Hunan Chef serves pretty wonderful food at modest prices. Most remarkable, the table service is friendly and efficient despite the bustling takeout service. This you hardly ever see, in my experience. Takeout takes priority in the same way a telephone call trumps a customer actually standing at the counter in a hardware store. If I see takeout bags being taken out in large numbers, I usually resign myself to slow, erratic service. But not at Hunan Chef.
The long menu includes many standards, and for the most part they don't disappoint. Only the scallion cakes ($3.95) left us feeling a little deflated; the cakes — actually a single cake cut into triangles like a pizza — suffered from dryness, which can be a symptom of having been made beforehand and then left sitting around too long.
Potstickers ($4.95 for six) more than compensated. They were as big as a baby's fist and juicy. Roasted duck wonton soup ($6.50) was also richly satisfying, a broad bowl of golden, oily broth backfilled with chunks of roasted duck and a wealth of wrinkly, pork-filled wontons. The soup alone would have made a meal for a single (takeout?) diner.
Generally I steer clear of curry dishes in Chinese restaurants. There is a yellow harshness I associate with curry powder spooned from a can. Hunan Chef's Singapore rice noodle ($6.50) did have the golden hue that suggests the presence of turmeric, but the curry flavor was smooth and mellow, not at all metallic. Also, there were plenty of other colorful attractions on the plate, including shrimp, shreds of barbecue pork, broccoli florets, carrot slivers, lengths of scallion, bamboo shoots, chunks of green bell pepper, and threadings of egg, which looked like ganglia as seen under a microscope.
Cabbage beef ($7.50) didn't look like much at all: pale gray-green cabbage leaves wok-fried with chunks of beef. But if ginger zing had a color, it would have been among the most colorful items on the menu. Carrot slivers helped, a little. Cabbage is a wonderful, supple vegetable that does suffer some from drabness and a reputation as poor-people food. As a boy, I hated it; now I seek it out.
The restaurant offers a range of what might be called signature dishes — dishes with "Hunan" in the name — among them Hunan chicken ($7.50). Here we found, along with chunks of boneless flesh, swaths of bok choy, button mushrooms, broccoli florets, carrot slivers, and whole dried red chilis. These last implied a sauce with some heat — Hunan being, along with Szechuan, among the spicier of China's regional cooking styles — and there was indeed a hint of heat in the marvelous, garlicky red sauce. This was the kind of sauce that left you wishing Chinese restaurants brought you a basket of bread so you'd have a means of sopping it up. An alternative to bread is to have the leftovers boxed up. Once you're in the privacy of your own home, you can do as you see fit.
Service was excellent. The serving of dishes was well-paced, empty plates were removed promptly, and water glasses never ran dry. I was reminded, as I so often am at Chinese restaurants, of the prep time involved in virtually every dish, the dicing, chopping, and shredding — an expense of human effort and energy that reduces cooking times and therefore the need for scarce fuel. As the child of an energy-hogging culture that burns fossil fuels to blow leaves from the sidewalk so the wind can blow them back again, I can't help but be impressed by this.
Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.;
Sun., 4–9 p.m.
525 Cortland, SF
Beer and wine