Good Bye, General Tso
Hunan Taste offers authentic Chinese cuisine
A laminated card sits on each table at Catonsville's pretty Hunan Taste. "Please Read!" the text urges. "Hunan Taste is an authentic Hunan styled Chinese food [sic]. Please order according to your preferences! Our dishes may contain fish bones or other meat bones, please inform us if you do not wish to have them. We will make arrangements for you!"
This earnest courtesy foreshadows the distinctly unique dining experience of Hunan Taste, where dishes may also (but don't have to) include animal parts not typically eaten by many Americans (hen's blood, pig's ears, intestines, tripe, fish heads, and frogs, to name just a few). But if this kind of Chinese food isn't your thing, don't cross Hunan Taste off your list. The restaurant knows that fans of Chinese food often fall into two categories--the ones who relish such authenticity and others who cherish the American-style Chinese food to which they were first introduced--and it accommodates both parties with two menus (the staff refers to one as "American Chinese," the other as the "traditional"), dishes described in two languages, very sweet service, and very, very good food.
Each of the restaurant's menus is voluminous. Along with fried rice, lo mein, and chow mein, the American Chinese menu offers over 50 entrées including classics like sweet and sour shrimp, crispy roasted duck, and orange beef. The Chinese menu trumps that with an impossibly large list of dishes as staggering to browse as it is overwhelming to choose from. There are clay pots and casseroles, stir fries and steamed dishes, lily roots and soft shell turtles, as well as beef, chicken, and shrimp in all sorts of permutations.
Usually, a list of over a hundred entrées and specialties, not counting appetizers, soups, and noodles, would signal a kitchen in serious trouble of overextending itself. But based on our dinner, the kitchen showed remarkable control on a midweek evening with the restaurant about half full. Dishes arrived promptly, hot and fresh-tasting, and because we were not made aware of the American-Chinese menu until the end of our meal, all selections came from the Hunan menu, with a little explanation and encouragement from the staff.
"Chinese people love this," said our server approvingly, as she placed an appetizer dish of shrimp with bitter melon ($6.95)--brilliantly green, like grass after a hard rain--on our table. I loved it, too, and savored the small, pink shrimp glazed with garlic nestled among the chunks of bitter melon, which was strong, with a bite not unlike broccoli rabe and a texture similar to celery. The server also enthused over our choice of country bumpkin chicken ($7.95), an appetizer chosen as much for its silly name as for the possibility of what it might be. The chicken may have been our favorite dish of the evening--white-meat chicken on the bone, hacked into chunks and served in a salty, savory broth so rich we, ahem, negotiated over the last pieces.
We were unsure of what to expect from the marinated meat combination ($12.95), but it turned out to be pretty much as its name suggested: cold slices of beef and pork (and pig's ear--OK, we weren't expecting that), marinated in soy and other spices, and served with a temperature-raising chili oil. The marinating nearly erased the flavor differences between the pork and beef, but the thin, wide slices of ear, streaky like bacon, retained a firmer texture, crispy-chewy, and not unlike that of a radish.
Main dishes proved similarly surprising and satisfying. Vegetarian choices such as Chinese leeks with shredded tofu ($10.95) and eggplant in a clay pot with garlic sauce ($11.95) offered clear flavors and subtle heat. While the eggplant was slightly oily (something hard to avoid with eggplant, which soaks up oil like a sponge), the lashes of dark-green leeks, trimmed to the exact length of the thin shard of tofu, gave that dish a fresh, earthy intensity. Crispy pork intestine ($12.95) was more chewy than crispy. We had half expected the small tubes to be breaded, but were glad they weren't once the chrysanthemum fish arrived ($18.95).
Our server had described the fish as "fun," and "like the fried onion," and so we forewent steamed fish Hunan style for fried fun. It wasn't a bad decision. The fillet of rockfish, scored, dipped in batter, and fried, with only little bits of skin holding it all together, did indeed look like a blooming onion. And with its reddish sauce, it was kind of a Chinese equivalent of ketchup and French fries, sweet and savory, fried and crunchy. More fast food than haute cuisine, we still devoured the whole thing.
Hunan Taste is full of these small surprises, from the dining room--warm, cherry-red, attractive, and distinctly uncharacteristic of most shopping center restaurants--to the dietary accommodations the management offers diners. Like its neighbor H-Mart, the restaurant gives folks the opportunity to expand their dining boundaries with little cost and a lot of encouragement, which is a pretty good deal.
Open daily for lunch and dinner.