Fish heads and fire. That’s Hunan.
When you tell somebody about a Hunan restaurant, always begin with the steamed fish head. The fish head will be large, probably from an enormous carp or similar freshwater species, thus comical, and it will be frosted with the chopped blend of dried, fresh and fermented chiles that give Hunanese cooking its reputation for head-snapping heat.
You will be able to chat about prying off chunks of soft meat, scraping down silvery skin and digging around in the cranium for gooey cartilage and bits of custardy brain. Did you scorch your fingers when you dropped your spoon in the seething broth, accidentally ingest an eyeball or crunch into an inedible fish bone? Splendid.
Working over a giant fish head is hard, treacherous work, made even more difficult by the Sterno fire blasting under the tureen, but your labor shows an almost artisanal dedication to process -- honest sweat amplified by a sheen of scarlet spice. Even ordering the fish head, a standard of Hunan cooking, shows that you understand the cuisine does not much resemble the sweet, gloppy stuff that tends to go by that name in nearly all Hunanese restaurants in the U.S. You have not popped into your local Hunan Wok. General Tso may have been a proud son of Hunan, but his chicken is nowhere to be found.
The steamed fish head is pretty splendid at Hunan Mao, which is probably the Hunan standard-bearer in the San Gabriel Valley at the moment. The restaurant, reports the Chinese-food blog 626 Foodettes, is owned by John Huang, the guy who until recently owned Hunan Seafood down the street and before that the universally beloved Hunan’s Restaurant. Huang is the Johnny Appleseed of Hunanese cooking in California. The illustrated menus, repurposed from Huang’s former establishment, are still labeled Hunan Seafood on their covers.
If you were a fan of the luscious cucumber stir-fried with shiso, the toss-fried mutton and the chewy, spicy lamb ribs fried with garlic and lots of Sichuan peppercorn, you will find them at Hunan Mao in their original fashion. If your tastes extend more toward gooey strips of pigskin tossed with chopped chiles, magma-thick Hunan hot pots or the fearsome dish called Hot Over Spicy, basically a stir-fry of chiles flavored with chiles, seasoned with yet other chiles and dosed with a bit of ground pork, you will find them here too. All the chile would seem to call for cold beer, but you will have to settle for ice water, constantly.
There are nearly a dozen Hunan restaurants in the greater San Gabriel Valley -- as one of China’s most populous regions, it is a significant source of immigration to the area -- and the best of them, including this one, tend to specialize in the funkier side of the cuisine: the steamed and smoked meats, the simmered organs, the fermented vegetables and the oily, fearsomely hot dishes that make Hunan a paradise of peasant cuisine.
You will find a dish of thinly sliced pork belly steamed over a mound of preserved vegetables in many regional Chinese restaurants, but rarely will the meat be as delicate and the vegetables as earthy as they are here. The house-smoked Hunan ham has the punch of first-rate barbecue -- Bludso’s-level barbecue -- and while it is good served as part of a barbecue platter with smoked fish and smoked duck, it is at its best coarsely chopped and sauteed with dried long beans, a handful of garlic cloves and the vivid red and green chopped chiles that dominate most of the plates here. I’ve never been able to pass an evening here without at least one order of the smoky Hunan ham.
Is the restaurant named for the Hunan-born Chairman Mao? It is, and you should probably try its version of “Mao’s braised pork,” a sweet, slightly spicy clay-potful of thick-cut braised pork belly and garlic -- almost unbearably rich, and soft enough to collapse at the touch of a chopstick. Hunan braised pork belly was reputedly Mao’s favorite dish. It may become yours too.
The flat-screen TV tends to be tuned to the Chinese news station instead of the Lakers game -- one evening a Chinese friend was surprised to discover that we were watching departing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao addressing the plenary of the National People’s Congress, which was not what she had in mind as part of an exciting night on the town. Still, if this disturbs you, you are probably in the wrong place. You are also in the wrong place if you think you may be disturbed by the sight of steamed fish heads. At dinner time, the monsters will be bobbing on two tables out of three.
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Real Hunan: Come for the fish head, stay for the ham.
8728 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 280-0855
Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout.