My Dinner at Hwa Yuan

December 14, 2017

A friend who grew up in Chinatown told me he’d had the best Chinese food he could remember at the new Hwa Yuan Szechuan. “Their moo shoo pork was so deliciously delicate,” he said, “and I HATE moo shoo pork.”

How could I not go?

Let’s cut to the chase: the place is enormous, spread across three floors, expensively (and oddly) decorated with a menu that, at first glance, seems remarkably silly.  When was the last time you felt like ordering Caesar Salad in a Chinese restaurant?  What on earth are they doing with a raw bar?  Cheesecake: really?

Which is to say, I took one look at the menu and thought my friend might have lost it.

Hwa Yuan was, apparently, very famous in the seventies and eighties; the restaurant, owned by Shorty Tang, was one of the earliest purveyors of Sichuan food and pretty much made a market in cold sesame noodles. (I was in California in those years, so I missed Mr. Tang’s moment of fame.)

Now Shorty’s son, Chen Lien Tang, has decided to reopen the restaurant right next door to where the original once stood.  And he has grand ambitions.

Skipping past the salad, the sole carpaccio, the shrimp cocktail and raw uni, we began by ordering steamed short ribs in sticky rice.  They were superb! Hiding beneath the beautifully spiced meat is an entire layer of squash.  We began to think my friend might not be crazy.

Then the chef sent out these little spicy Sichuan dumplings, and they were great too, the noodles thin, the sauce with a gentle but insistent kick.

Whole fish with hot bean sauce was carefully cooked, the fish snatched from the steamer at the exact right moment, rendering the flesh smooth, silky, seductive.  Delicious as the fish was, I’d order it just for the pleasure of that sauce…

But the most impressive dishes might have been the most subtle, like this baby bok choy cooked in “superior broth.”  It was, indeed, superior.

And this dish, called “Tang’s Amazing Tofu with Meat” doesn’t look like much, but it offered a small surprise with each bite. You biet into a floating pillow of velvety tofu, and then, suddenly, a flash of black bean, and a hint of chili go zipping through the blandness.  The squeak of scallion and tiny batons of pork are threaded through the dish, contrast to all that softness. I literally couldn’t stop eating.

Of course we had to order a dish of the hated moo shoo.  And just as promised – it was a delight.

I want to go back to try the Peking Duck (it has its own dedicated oven), the orange beef, the kung pao chicken which Mr. Tang promises is done simply, with just chiles and garlic.

 

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