Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Authentic Chinese at Hunan Legend in Columbia

One of my favorite parts of this blog has been sharing the Chinese-language menu from Hunan Legend. Last year, I had a horrible meal at the Columbia institution, and I posted about my frustration that I couldn't get the waiter to serve us authentic Chinese even when we asked. A reader named Wai sent me a copy of the Chinese menu that she had translated. I posted the menu. Since then, other folks have emailed me for the menu and then ordered the authentic Chinese dishes when they visited.

(Update: Hunan Legend has created an official translation. I think people like Warthog convinced them that Americans would be cool with authentic flavors.)

A HowChow reader nicknamed Warthog posted on Chowhound last week about the fun that he has had using the menu and getting to meet Hunan Legend's owners through convincing them that he really wanted to skip the Americanized food. Warthog talks up the authentic Chinese food -- and some Malaysian dishes as well. This was his opening post:

I have friends who I dine with frequently who love Grace Garden, but don't get done with work early enough to make the long drive worthwhile.
Luckily, HowChowBlog recently posted a translation of the "secret" Chinese menu at Hunan Legend in one of the Town Centers in Columbia (Dorsey ?).
As is depressingly often the case, it turns out that they are perfectly capable of cranking out really good, authentic Chinese food. The trick is convincing them that you WANT the real deal. The house specialty is more toward the milder Cantonese style of Chinese cuisine, as opposed to the spcier Szechuan focus at Grace Garden, but after several visits, I'd say these folks are right up there as far as quality - if you can convince them to forgo the "Americanizing".
The main difference is that the chef at Grace Garden is on a mission to "convert" the masses to "real" chinese food, and he's willing ot take a chance that the customer is ready for it. The Hunan Legend folks seem very wary, perhaps due to too many returns of "real" dishes from those wanting the same old gloppy, overly sweet Americanized stuff. It seems that you really have to work to convince them to let you into the "can be given the good stuff" club.
I would suggest that you find and print out that translated menu, take it with you, and be very obvious about consulting it. Then indicate to your waiter (or preferably the owner, if she's there) that you've heard very good things about their "real" Chinese food, and that you want to try it. Then go back a couple of times to convince them that you're serious.
I'd not call them better than Grace Garden, and I'd probably rank them slightly below G.G., but mostly because I prefer G.G.'s spicier style of food. For those who are much closer to Hunan Legend than to Grace Garden, or who prefer the milder and more subtle end of the Chinese food spectrum, it's an option well worth exploring.
G.G. fans, please believe me - I'm not trying to syphon customers away from G.G.! Instead, I'm hoping that we can "grow" the market for both of them, and perhaps convince more Asian restaurants in the are that there is a viable customer base for the "real" versions of their respective cuisines, in addition to the dumbed down version. It doesn't have to be all one or the other.
It turns out that the owners at H.L. are actually Malaysian, so my friends and I are now working on coaxing some authentic Malaysian dishes out of them, now that they know that we really appreciate the authentic preparations. If we are successful, I'll pass on info about what dishes we find out about. There is one Malaysian stif-fried noodle dish on the "secret" menu, and the owner has promised to let us try a "not on any menu" seafood curry that is popular with their Malaysian customers. Who knows what other wonders may await us?

I'm with Warthog that I think most Chinese restaurant owners think that Americans want Americanized dishes. Places like Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro turn those dishes into delicious meals. But Grace Garden in Odenton packs its tables with authentic Chinese food, and I would like to convince other restaurants that they could offer a page of new dishes or a "secret" menu. There are people who wants to try new food. Even here in Howard County.

Click here for the entire Chowhound post where Warthog describes dishes like bitter melon and beef or sausage and cabbage. Click here for my take on Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

1 comment:

reiyi said...

I've commented previously under the original post about Hunan Legend's secret menu, but thanks to the wonderful commentary Warthog you posted, I'd gotten the urged to comment once again (since I'm usually a silent reader). Luckily I have too been one of those customers who have managed to be 'granted' access to their 'secret' menu and 'off-any-menu' items. The process as Warthog mentioned is enjoyable, esp. talking to and learning more about the owners in the process. I've also posted here before about some of my favorites being the Chilean Sea Bass cooked in a tangy and spicy sauce. If you haven't tried it already, I highly recommend it. Sea cucumber in a special brown sauce (something I've tried recently) and the appetizer 'cold-cut seafood trio' (which consists of marinated sliced pig's knuckle, jellyfish, and cuttlefish) are also my personal favorites but I recall that those have to be ordered in advance (like G.G) due to preparation. I'm working up the courage (and almost there since I do want to try the most authentic stuff) to try the pork blood and intestine dish, but in the meantime, I'd like to discover what else is there as well. Hope to hear more of your and Warthog's new findings!