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Farewell, Hunan K


Fat Guy
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Hunan K was our neighborhood Chinese restaurant, though to call it a restaurant is an exaggeration. You've seen this sort of place: A storefront the width of a locksmith's shop, a couple of tables (rarely used) awkwardly wedged into the vestibule, a series of photographs of surreal-looking Chinese-American dishes posted above the counter, and three generations of family working hard, 12 or more hours a day, in the totally exposed kitchen.<p>Hunan K was not a good Chinese restaurant, or even a mediocre Chinese restaurant. I would characterize it as a bad Chinese restaurant, though I don't mean that in a bad way. Having grown up with bad Chinese food, I find that certain perverse examples of it -- egg foo yung smothered in gelatinous brown gravy; day-glo red sweet-and-sour chicken -- bring me comfort. I'm gratified that Shanghai, Teochew, and other regional Chinese cuisines are now expressing themselves in America, but I'd be sorry to see the bad Chinese restaurant breed die out.<p>Hunan K opened almost on the same day we moved to Carnegie Hill, though any resident of Carnegie Hill would be quick to point out that Hunan K is not in the neighborhood, being on Third Avenue and all. We visited Hunan K, perhaps on opening day, or at least thereabouts, and dismissed it as generic and unfortunate.<p>Hunan K, it turns out, did not deserve such premature dismissal. Over time, we gradually made enemies with each of the six or seven other bad Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood. Eventually, each committed an unthinkable transgression either in cuisine or service, and we crossed it off the list. Eventually, Hunan K was the last bad Chinese restaurant standing. So we returned (I returned, actually, because I am the designated takeout-schlepper).<p>Hunan K, it became apparent, was a deeper operation that I had originally assumed. Because while the emphasis was on bad Chinese food, all the makings of good Chinese food were present as well. The primary cook had trained at one or another impressive-sounding Asian hotel. Right next to the gigantic cans of goopy industrial sauces were all the fresh vegetables and meats one would need to create a wedding banquet. The bad Chinese food orientation was purely an expression of supply and demand. Eventually, as I became a regular customer, I started making special requests. These requests were fulfilled with aplomb, and further suggestions were proffered. Eventually, good Chinese food emerged from Hunan K, although I confess my orders typically juxtaposed the good and the bad.<p>Hunan K was accommodating in the extreme. There were several dishes the chef and I concocted together to satisfy my wife's mostly vegetarian leanings, my favorite being mushroom and cabbage soup (pronounced "musroomcabbagesoup"). Amazingly, even when the head cook was not present (he took a day off every month or so), it was possible to get musroomcabbagesoup from the auxiliary cooks -- everybody knew all my special orders. The price arrived at for a quart of this elixir was an arbitrary $2.60, which never changed over the years.<p>Hunan K delivered, of course, but I preferred to visit the restaurant and witness the ballet in the kitchen. The efficiency and economy of movement of this family, as the members cooked multiple large and small takeout orders with flawless coordination, was preternatural. I did on occasion have food delivered, though, and the delivery guy always came up the stairs laughing. "Ha ha ha ha, hello how are you sir. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ten ninety five. Ha ha ha ha ha. Thank you very much have nice day. Ha ha ha ha ha." We came to refer to him as the guy with the maniac laugh. Once I was walking on Park Avenue and the guy with the maniac laugh rode past me on his bicycle. As soon as I registered in his consciousness, he slammed on his brakes. "Ha ha ha ha ha. Hello sir! Ha ha ha ha." And then he observed with existential flair, "You on the street! Ha ha ha ha ha."<p>Hunan K closed its doors forever sometime in the past two weeks. I headed there tonight to obtain musroomcabbagesoup. I had in my pocket exact change for two orders. But as I approached I failed to see the soft glow of the red and green neon light in the window, and more telling still I smelled nothing. Hunan K, it turns out, was at some point in the recent past shuttered by the marshals. A cryptic sign alluded to some sort of unsatisfied debt, and offered the name of the landlord. After more than a decade of Chinese food stability in my life, I am without bearings. Worse, I'm sure I'll never learn the fate of my friends.<p>Farewell, Hunan K.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Sigh.  Responding to this feels kind of like figuring out what to say to someone when a loved on has died.  It brought to mind something Jane Jacobs said (I couldn't find the exact quote) about how in the long run, our happiness depends more on our acquaintances than our friends.  It has a heartless ring to it, but also a brutal emotional truth that gets brought home to me again and again.

Or, hey, if the thread is about bad Chinese food:  I used to work at a fiscally unsound Internet startup on the north edge of the meatpacking district, just as the meatpacking district was starting to become cool (I was on the cusp, man).

I shared a big office with one coworker.  At least four times a week we would order from the tiny bad Chinese place a block away on 14th street.  We would always get either the "hunan chicken" or "hunan beef":  meat stir-fried with a mess of vegetables, drenched in a spicy garlic sauce, served with steamed rice and a free can of Coke.  The total, with delivery tip, was Ů each (and this was a sizable tip).

There was a fair amount of office politics going on at all times, and we were partially insulated from it by being a floor apart.  Some days it felt like it was me, my coworker, and the King Food delivery guy versus the world.  Once one of the upstairs employees came down and said, "How can you guys eat that greasy #### all the time?"  He did not get it.

Sometimes I would pass the delivery guy hitching up his bicycle as I walked to the train on my way home and he would always laugh and wave.  I guess this isn't really a story in the same sense that Shaw's is:  eventually I quit my job and never went back to King Food.  It's probably still there.  But yeah, these places are important.

Come to think of it, I could tell almost the same story about a different hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant the first time I lived in New York.  I'll spare you.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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We used to have the best Chinese restaurant in the world in Croydon, England. It was called the Tung Kum, and was owned by two Hong Kong immigrants, Tony (kitchen) and Eric (front of house).

I can't bear to remember the food. It was miraculous, and once you became a regular there you were invited to make up your own menu, or to allow Tony to do so. I ate there on average 3 times a week for nearly two years.

Sadly, Eric's interest in horses began to consume not only his passion, but also the business's profits. Tom, who did the firm's accounts, started to cook more than char kway teow and beef with mango (ohhhh that beef with mango), and turned his skills to cooking the books.

Suddenly one day the shutters went up. A notice in the window proclaimed "Temporarily closed for refurbishment" and so we all knew the game was up. "Temporarily closed for refurbishment" is Hong Kong Chinese for "done a runner", and Eric and Tony were never seen again. I and my many friends and colleagues for whom the Tung Kum was a temple, will never recover from our loss, nor ever forget what Chinese food can be made to taste like.

Oh Steven, you've got me feeling so sad :( just when I thought it was safe to go out for a Chinese again....

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Today I actually found myself altering my dog-walking route so as not to have to pass by the gutted shell of Hunan K. They used to love my bulldog, Momo. When I walked by, they'd run out into the street and say, "Bulldog expensive dog. How much he cost?"

Hunan K had a great big deep-fryer in the front of the kitchen. One day, very early on, I observed, "I bet you could make great french fries in that thing." Next time I visited, french fries had been added to the menu, right between the fried wontons and the shrimp toast. Almost a decade later, I learned that the most common takeout order throughout the restaurant's history was the combination of Chinese chicken wings and french fries. I only ordered the french fries once. They were terrible.

I think I'm going to cry now.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 4 years later...

We had the most wonderful Chinese restaurant down South in the little town near our home out in the country. Any trip in merited at least a stop for takeout, and we always joked that if we won the lottery, we'd just hire all the family, build them a house on our big farm, and let them cook for us every day.

They didn't close. They're still there, upward and onward, the little flap-windowed takeout section converted into a respectable dining room with sheets of glass atop all the pink-clothed tables. Saves on laundry, I guess. The food is still spectacular, and they will cook anything for you---our boys used to take them venison, dozens of mallards, fish by the hundreds, and they would cook the most fantastic dishes with them, then put the game dishes on a hand-printed menu for as long as supplies held out.

They're there, popular as ever, growing and expanding, feeding the masses. But I'm not there anymore. I'm hundreds of miles away, and haven't been back in two years. That's almost as sad as a close-by-night of your favorite place. :sad:

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Today I actually found myself altering my dog-walking route so as not to have to pass by the gutted shell of Hunan K. They used to love my bulldog, Momo. When I walked by, they'd run out into the street and say, "Bulldog expensive dog. How much he cost?"<p>Hunan K had a great big deep-fryer in the front of the kitchen. One day, very early on, I observed, "I bet you could make great french fries in that thing." Next time I visited, french fries had been added to the menu, right between the fried wontons and the shrimp toast. Almost a decade later, I learned that the most common takeout order throughout the restaurant's history was the combination of Chinese chicken wings and french fries. I only ordered the french fries once. They were terrible.<p>I think I'm going to cry now.

Have you tried CHef Ho's? It used to be a notch above the regular Chinese take-out?

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Today I actually found myself altering my dog-walking route so as not to have to pass by the gutted shell of Hunan K. They used to love my bulldog, Momo. When I walked by, they'd run out into the street and say, "Bulldog expensive dog. How much he cost?"<p>Hunan K had a great big deep-fryer in the front of the kitchen. One day, very early on, I observed, "I bet you could make great french fries in that thing." Next time I visited, french fries had been added to the menu, right between the fried wontons and the shrimp toast. Almost a decade later, I learned that the most common takeout order throughout the restaurant's history was the combination of Chinese chicken wings and french fries. I only ordered the french fries once. They were terrible.<p>I think I'm going to cry now.

Have you tried CHef Ho's? It used to be a notch above the regular Chinese take-out?

:huh: I took my own suggestion and ordered out from Chef Ho's last night. The scallion pancakes were the texture of shoe leather, worst ever, the Shanghai spare ribs were tasteless and bland, the grand marnier shrimp had a gloppy sweet sauce and Ho's beef was a riff on orange beef, barely any chilies but not inedible. I tried to order pea shoots, they never heard of them. The bok choy was marginal. It seems that the restaurant had dumbed down its food to American tastes.

So it's back to Wu Liang Ye for tripe and ox cheek and Pig Heaven for excellent three glass chicken and Americanized spare ribs.

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You might try to console yourself by patronizing one of these bastions of Chinese American on the UES:

First Wok 3rd Ave and 78th

Tang Tang 3rd Ave and 76th

Charlie Mom 1st Ave and 77th

All very high volume acceptable Chinese-American, IMHO.

As far as the bulldog, well, I think you'll just have to take him to France where he would be allowed in all the restaurants!

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