Hunanese in Fremont – Chili Garden Restaurant

We visited a recently opened Hunanese restaurant in Fremont. The restaurant claimed to be authentic Hunan-style. In Chinese cusine, Hunan cusine is sometimes considered to be an even hotter, spicier cousin to the famously spicy Szechuan cusine. So with the upcoming long weekend, we decided to give it a try.

The restaurant sits in a depressing shopping center anchored by Drug Emporium. However, the restaurant itself is very new inside and nicely decorated. When we arrived around 9pm (they close at 9:30) the day before Valentine’s, the place had 3 large tables filled and another small table occupied, (more on the large tables later), which makes them about 1/4 full.

Not being experts in this cusine, we ordered what we “heard” to be dishes originating from Hunan. We could be all wrong here, so if anyone knows, please share. We were given the Chinese menu and later we found out from the take-out menus that there are indeed 2 menu versions, one American and one Chinese only. Unfortunately, most of the “authentic” dishes appear only on the Chinese menu.

Anyways, we ordered the House special Chili Garden Beef, Sour-cabbage Bamboo Tip with Pork, and Dry-fried “four-season” string beans.

First came the Sour-cabbage bamboo pork on a big round plate. The cabbage was just slightly sour, and the pork very tender. This combined with slightly crunchy bamboo tips in a red-chili oil sauce made it a great dish to chow down the rice with. It was spicy, but not numbing spicy like the Szechuan dishes.

Then came the Dry-fried beans. This was stir-fried to perfection with not an additional drop of oil to be found on the large plate. This was the only non-spicy thing we ordered, and it was very flavorful.

Finally came the Chili Garden Beef. Before ordering, I had asked the waiter to make sure this was not some deep-fried sweet & sour orange beef type of dish (which is sometimes the case for dishes bearing the restaurant name). But to our delight, it was also not your regular stir-fried flank beef slices either. What it actually was was red-roasted (hong-shao) whole beef shank, that had been sliced, and THEN stir-fried with red, green peppers and onions in a hot-chili oil. I’ve never had red-roasting beef prepared in a dish like this. Usually it’s served as a cold dish by itself or other similar cold meats. Anyways, this was a great combo again, and the flavor was excellent, and due to the cutting, the meat was pretty tender.

Overall, the pork the beef dish had a little more oil in the plate than we like, while the beans had none. Maybe that’s how they’re supposed to be in Hunan cusine? But all 3 dishes had excellent taste. The spiciness was hot but not numbing or overwhelming. I even ate several pieces of the dry-hot pepper from the beef dish. It tasted great, but then I regretted the next day.

I talked to the owner who is Hunanese, and he mentions that the Hunan dishes are “Shiang-lah”, which means fragrant-spicy, while Szechuan dishes are “Mah-lah”, which means numbing-spicy. I think I agree with his assessment. The dishes were all very fragrant and flavorful, and the portions large. We took home left overs from pork and the beans.

As for the large tables, folks from 2 of them were from 1 party, and apparently they were speaking native Hunanese. So that can also count for this place’s authenticity. We look forward to visiting it again and trying some of the other dishes that looked interesting from the menu.

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