Diners often turn to Sichuan to burn their mouths on the mala of peppercorns and chiles, but the truth is that Hunan cuisine is often even hotter. It issues from a province in Central China southeast of Sichuan. Boasting rich agricultural land and scenic beauty, the region is also renowned as the birthplace of Chairman Mao. The cuisine makes much of fresh and pickled chiles, black peppercorns (few Sichuan peppercorns), freshwater fish, dried and smoked meats, as well as the province’s vegetable bounty. While it's true you can now find Sichuan restaurants in every corner of the city, real Hunan is still relatively rare.
Now a new and perhaps more exceptional Hunan restaurant has appeared in an obscure corner of Flushing. Wangxianglou ("Down by the Xiang River") is located on 40th Road in a commercial strip lying below the LIRR tracks, consisting of small variety stores, nail shops, dumpling stalls, and massage parlors — where women wait outside on folding chairs beckoning passers-by upstairs for some bodywork.
Like several of the new restaurants on this row — which seems to be creeping upscale — the outside is unprepossessing, almost ramshackle, while the inside is sumptuous. Presaged by red-ribboned bamboo plants and a smiling ceramic lucky cat with a fist raised in greeting, the front room of the restaurant is spare and straight-chaired. But pass through a bottleneck to find an area of comfy booths penned in by black brick walls surmounted by white lattice fences. Bring a crowd, because each booth can accommodate an army.
You want hot? Anything featuring fresh green chiles fills the bill. The spicy green pepper with preserved egg ($14.95) comes in a decorative stoneware mortar, featuring steamed fresh chiles, seeds popping out, roughly mashed with darkly translucent hundred-year-old eggs. A wooden pestle protrudes, inviting you to smash the fiery mélange further. Elsewhere on the menu listed as pan-seared green chili peppers, these same green chiles reappear fried with wrinkly skins, treated as if they were common vegetables and not potent seasonings. Watch out, tongue!
Even more characteristic of Hunan cuisine is the pickled pepper: slender, finger-shaped chiles in bright red and green hues, preserved in sharp vinegar. The most famous of these dishes is the steamed fish head with chopped chile ($24.95), which immerses a massive carp cranium in buckets of red broth. Though it requires expert and attentive work with chopsticks to extract the morsels of flesh, there’s more than you'd think, especially if you probe deep in the cheeks, forehead, and hanging jowls of the great fish. Find a more accessible use of these pickled chiles — whole rather than chopped — in country-style shredded pork with green chiles.
The contrast between bland and fiery is never more apparent in what is perhaps the menu’s most dramatic use of these chiles: homemade tofu ($10.95), listed as Hunan-style steamed tofu. Perfectly aligned slices of soft bean curd collapse on the plate like dominos, laved in a carmine solution and topped with colorful crushed peppers. On either side float two poached eggs, as if guarding the tofu.
While eggs with tofu aren't necessarily common on Hunan menus, there are plenty of other tofu-less egg dishes on the menu, including one called hometown fried eggs — which turned out to be roughly scrambled eggs mixed with scallions and a dash of fish sauce — perfect brunch fare. Another, steamed egg with crabs, features whole red crustaceans atop an omelet laked with a thin brown gravy.
Alas, Wangxianglou makes less use of dried, smoked, and otherwise preserved meats and vegetables than Hunan Kitchen (where smoked bamboo provides the city’s best vegetarian BBQ), nevertheless there are a few dishes in this category worth considering. One is called by the head-scratching moniker of wind blowing pork ($14.95). Though it suggests a form of precipitation in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, "wind blowing" may be an inspired translation of dehydrated, and thus the dish features dried, flayed, and rehydrated pork belly, tossed with mild chiles and green onions.
Ordering dishes with inscrutable names is not a bad approach here. One afternoon, blessed with a large group, we ordered the elegiac-sounding "A Bowl of Assorted Grains" ($18.95). Would it be a porridge of quinoa, chia seeds, and oat groats? It arrived in a vessel reminiscent of Roman times, brimming with corn on the cob, sliced taro, Medjool dates, and sesame seeds in a candied glaze. This sweet concoction is apparently a Hunan main-course staple. But we treated it as dessert and were perfectly satisfied.
Cost: Dinner for two, including an app and two main courses (one with meat or fish, the other vegetarian), $35.
Sample dishes: Big pot cauliflower, wind blowing pork, fish head with chopped chili, cold pig’s heart.
What to drink: Tea, beer, or water are the best beverages.
Bonus tip: The menu is sprinkled with Sichuan dishes in so-so renditions, including spicy deep-fried chicken, which turns out to be Chongqing chicken with inadequately toasted red chiles. Skip them. Also avoid the panel of the menu called Fu Chow Cuisine; though these Fujianese dishes are well prepared (several are actually Taiwanese), it seems like a sop to a neighborhood population in flux. Anyway, you’re here to sample Hunan fare.