Monday, June 23, 2008

Hunan Legend and Hunan Manor: How Do You Order Chinese Food?

People say that Hunan Manor and Hunan Legend are the best Chinese around. I have to take their word for it.

ChowHound and other blogs are full of comments (1, 2) where people praise each restaurant and debate the subtle differences -- whether Hunan Manor has faded or gotten pretentious. People comment about ordering authentic, off-the-menu dishes.

I need to learn the secret password. Mrs. HowChow and I tried at Hunan Legend. I had asked for advice beforehand. I asked the waiter for suggestions. But nothing was good. We tried dry chow fun because it had been recommended. We tried a cold chicken with spicy sauce because it was the most unusual appetizer. We tried tangy chicken because it was on the "chef's specialties" page. Nothing was worth finishing.

It's frustrating because people love these places. Karen Nitkin liked Hunan Legend in a Sun review four months ago. If you know Chinese
food, you can probably get something delicious. I just don't understand why delicious things would be off-the-menu. Nobody hides the good stuff at Mango Grove, and the people there recommend dishes based on what you like and how much experience you have with Indian food.

Can I get some advice? I'll go back if someone could just explain what makes them love these places. Until then, the call of Bangkok Delight and An Loi Pho -- or even Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro -- will just be too strong.

(Update: You should definitely read the great comment below from Wai -- who talked about a Chinese-language menu at Hunan Legend. Wai said that the dishes off that menu were authentic home cooking. Wai translated the Chinese menu. I posted and sent it out. People used the menu, and at some point, the Hunan Legend owners published their own official translation. It has been my favorite part of HowChow.)

Click here for my overview on Chinese restaurants in Howard County. For my money, people who want authentic Chinese food should drive to Grace Garden in Odenton. It's a family-run joint with a chef who used to work at Hunan Legend, and they serve spectacular food -- with a printed "Eastern" menu with all the delicacies written out. Know it is a Spartan joint. Go for the adventure.

Hunan Legend
4725 Dorsey Hall Drive, Ste D
Ellicott City, MD 21042
NEAR: The Dorsey Hall shopping center is just off Columbia Road north of Rte 108. This is just west of Rte 29 and just north of the Columbia line.

Hunan Manor
7091 Deepage Drive
Columbia, MD 21045
NEAR: This is off Snowden River Parkway a few blocks where where Snowden ends into Broken Land Parkway.

Hunan Legend on Urbanspoon


Unknown said...

I just recently moved to Columbia and have struggled to find authentic Chinese cuisine, regardless of region (e.g., North v. South; Cantonese, Beijing, Taiwan, or Szechuan). I recently visited Hunan Legend for the first time and wanted to offer my comments on your fabulous blog.

First, I thought the service was quite nice and patient, which is somewhat of a rarity in authentic Chinese restaurants.

That being said, the authentic options at Hunan Legend are a bit limited. These options are taped up on the glass partition when you enter the restaurant (e.g., fish prepared in three traditional ways, soft shell crab, etc.) and also on an ALL-Chinese menu. My reading comprehension sucks, so I had to ask the waiter in English to walk me through the most popular authentic options (I also took home a paper copy of the Chinese menu to translate on my own). He suggested three very tasty dishes: 1) Chilean sea bass cut into bite size pieces with fresh fried tofu in a nice brown sauce, 2) sliced pork, "dried" tofu (direct translation), and jalopeno peppers with a bean sauce, and of course for the Southern girl in me, 3) fresh Chinese vegetables quick/very hot sauteed with garlic. I couldn't make up my mind about which vegetable, so he offered to throw all three options together. The mix didn't look as pretty as if I order just one, but it was tasty and dead-on in terms of homemade cooking. The restaurant has a limited authentic Chinese menu, but as far as I can tell what they do have they do well. For non-Chinese foodies, try to express to them the types of dishes you're interested in (like describe some from Grace Garden and if you like spice, maybe even say how many dried peppers you generally add to your food) and see if they can point you toward a couple of dishes that might interest you.

Oh, and the hot tea sucks. I'm used to have a couple choices usually for tea (ok, maybe just at dim sum).

As for why menus are hidden, one reason that I've read about is that some patrons, who order from the authentic menu but are expecting Chinese American food, complain and send the dish(es) back. This scenario plays out often enough that restaurant folk are reluctant to chance not only losing customers but also money from rejected food.

Thanks for your wonderful blog. I look forward to reading more of your recommendations.


HowChow said...

Wai --

Thanks for the comments. This is great. If you can translate the menu, I would *love* to print a copy of the menu and the translation. I would go back and try again if I knew even the *name* of a few dishes to order. I'm going to link to your comment from this page and from the Best Chinese Restaurants post.

Thank you,


HowChow said...

Wai -- Have you been to Grace Garden? That seems to be roundly lauded.

Unknown said...

Hi, Brent,

Yes, I have been to Grace Garden and the food is quite tasty. My palate, however, is more trained in southern Chinese cooking. So, I can say that the basic taste of the more southern dishes seemed authentic to me. However, overall the dishes were more oily and more expensive than I'm used to. I hear though Szechuan cooking is much oilier than Cantonese and Fuzhou cooking. So, perhaps there's significant Szechuan influence at Grace Garden.

I would be happy to share my translation. It might take a while though, since my reading Chinese is rusted to shameful patheticness.

HowChow said...

Whenever you have something, I would love to post a translation (even a partial one) and maybe explain more. Want to write three paragraphs about southern Chinese flavors? My email is in the right column, and I'm sure I can figure out a way to post or link to an image of the menu/translation if you want to scan them.

Jade's Mama said...

Hi, Brent,

I finished most of the translation and I'd like to share it with you. I just need to track down a scanner.

In terms of regional Chinese cuisine, I found a couple of online sources that might be useful like , , and . I grew up with the understanding Chinese cooking by comparing the different regional cuisines. For now, I’ll just break it down by north and south.

Here’re some over-generalized characteristics:

PRIMARY STARCH (e.g., noodles, bao, bing)
North: Wheat
South: Rice

North: 4-legged land animals
South: No creature is safe, particularly of the sea
Universal: Tofu, poultry, egg

North: White, cabbagey
South: Dark green leafy, colorful

North: Salt
South: Sweet
Universal: Spicy (in some provinces), garlic, green onion, and/or ginger manage gaminess.

I plan to check out the other Chinese restaurants in the area. I'll let you know how it goes.


Gabrielle said...

Does anyone have a translation of the Chinese menu at Hunan Manor?

HowChow said...

@Gabrielle -- Hunan Manor was giving out English versions last time I was there. Did they stop that? I have an old version. Email me if you want.

Gabrielle said...

We were there about 2 weeks ago and I asked if they had an English translation of the Chinese menu, and they said "no". Now, admittedly it was right after Chinese New Year, so I don't know if they just didn't want to bother with that, but we're going there again on Sunday and I'll ask again.

HowChow said...

@Gabrielle -- I have a PDF of the menu from a few years ago. If you email me, I'm happy to send it to you.