When Mimi Sheraton reviewed Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn for the Times four decades ago, she gave it two stars and enthused, “It is not often that one comes across a Chinese restaurant with a menu that reflects a fairly strict commitment to the food of one particular region of China.” Indeed, the place was at the vanguard of a trend that eventually saw the city endowed with Chinese restaurants from at least a dozen regions.
The original restaurant at 42 East Broadway from Yun Fa “Shorty” Tang closed decades ago, but his son Chen Lieh Tang kept using the recipes as he operated a chain of restaurants with “Tang” in the name. Sam Sifton revived interest in the sesame noodles with an adulatory article in 2007, and in early October of this year, Tang reopened Hwa Yuan in the same location — now with three floors.
Curiosity and a desire to get a taste of those legendary sesame noodles prompted me to make two visits. The place is palatial, with a vaguely Art Deco elegance. It boasts a glassed-in front barroom with a gilt mural and a rear dining room decorated with blue paintings of Chinese townscapes. Soft rock plays in the background. The Hwa Yuan logo embosses the china, betokening a decorative grandeur that recalls the days when Chinese restaurants in both Chinatown and Times Square doubled as nightclubs.
The sesame noodles ($12) were superb. They sat up in the bowl glistening with a drizzle of coarse-textured sauce. The sauce produced a tangy and pungent flavor, flinging notes of ginger, garlic, and soy sauce, with a mild chile afterburn. And the peanut butter that predominates in many contemporary versions is more than offset by sesame.
But other appetizers are head-scratchers, including a Caesar salad ($16) that came flecked with anchovy and quizzically flanked by fresh raspberries. The scallion pancakes, which the menu describes as “Chinese pizza,” demonstrate the menu’s continued willingness to offer things outside the Sichuan canon, including Japanese, Cantonese, and Shanghai dishes.
What seem like old-fashioned Sichuan offerings dominate the menu, though — ones that are not swimming in chile oil and peppercorns the way much Sichuan food is nowadays.
The double-sautéed pork that New York’s Underground Gourmet praised back at the original Hwa Yuan is still in evidence. The modern day version is musky and pungent, modernized with a basket of steamed bao. Other old chestnuts include “Tang’s amazing spicy wine chicken” ($26), which deserves the self-praise for its gnarly knobs of chicken in an earthy, fermented black bean sauce, and an agreeable kung pao chicken heaped with roasted peanuts.
There are a sprinkling of more modern Sichuan dishes as well, such as the kind found in the East Village at places like Hot Kitchen, MáLà Project, and Han Dynasty. These include sliced conch with spicy chile sauce, which offers the merest hint of Sichuan peppercorns, and “hot tang tang noodles,” which turns out to be a crock of fiery broth with some wobbly wheat noodles, like the soups in modern Chinese noodle restaurants across town.
The best things about the revamped Hwa Yuan are the elegant presentation and level of cooking technique. Take it as an opportunity to dress up and eat Sichuan food in mellow renditions the way your parents may have done. But it’s an ironic pose for a restaurant once in the vanguard of Chinese gastronomy in New York.