As New York City and its surrounding regions begin to reopen, I’ve been visiting restaurants in many modes of operation. This is the first in a series of columns covering places I’m enjoying in our takeout-centric times. First up is Happy Hot Hunan, owned by Yunchou Liu, and Jia Liu.
For the last few years, the northernmost part of the Upper West Side has been a hotbed of Chinese restaurants. This is sometimes attributed to its proximity to Columbia University, where a large contingent of the staff and students were born in China. But it should also be mentioned that the Upper West Side has long harbored a wealth of Chinese establishments: Along with Chinatown, it was where Sichuan was first popularized here in the 1970s and 1980s.
The current crop of new places exhibit a contemporary approach to Chinese food, with modern dishes and novel presentations, and few concessions to this country’s popular tastes in Chinese food. On the upper end, there’s Atlas Kitchen, but Yu Kitchen, 108 Food, and Grain House — transplanted from its original location in Little Neck — also belong to the club. But patronizing these four places caused me to miss others. For nearly a year, I passed by the whimsically named Happy Hot Hunan without paying much attention.
Recently there were rumors that Yu Kitchen had reopened, and I soon went up there to meet a friend with the intention of grabbing several favorite dishes and eating them in Central Park. Unfortunately, it was still shuttered (though now slated to reopen this week). So on impulse I popped into five-year-old Happy Hot Hunan, noting that its extensive menu placed it among the most ambitious Hunan restaurants in town.
As I entered the restaurant, it had been cleared of its tables, which were stacked with the chairs along the walls. A trencher table had been laid across the front part of the space to provide a barrier, with hand wipes and hand sanitizer provided. The teenager behind the cash register wore a mask, and I could see a cook laboring over woks in the kitchen. A couple of chairs had been provided right in the front window for delivery workers.
The first dish that caught my eye was found in the Hunan Special section of the menu: smoked pork with smoked bamboo shoots ($17.95). Mindful that only two of us would be picnicking, I chose two more dishes, Hunan-style hot and sour vermicelli ($13.55) and, because leafy green vegetables should be part of nearly any Chinese meal, mustard greens ($14.55).
Hunan cuisine is often hotter than that of Sichuan, though Sichuan peppercorns are rarely seen. Rather, dried red chiles, black and white peppercorns, fresh green chiles, and — perhaps most important of all — colorful pickled chiles are used in combination, providing a vinegary burn. The most famous Hunan dish is probably fish head in pickled chiles, a communal celebration in which every tidbit is consumed. I skipped the classic fish head, deciding it was not good picnic fare, but my heart sunk at missing other dishes that sparked my curiosity. Things like old godmother steamed whole fish, duck with hot green pepper stew, and lamb in hot creamy chile sauce.
Though only two blocks away, Central Park was out the picture since it had begun to rain steadily. Accordingly, we made our way over to Broadway, the Upper West’s Parisian-style boulevard, which boasts benches on a landscaped median at the intersection of every street. We laid our banquet out on a bench, sanitized our hands, removed our masks, and began to munch as the rain continued to come down.
The pork and bamboo was exhilarating, with a powerful smoky taste that exuded equally from the fat-rimmed pork belly as well as the springy bamboo. We speculated about what Texas barbecue would be like today if bamboo had been a raw material. The mustard greens were equally good, dotted with powerfully tart pickled chiles, while the greens themselves remained crunchy and slightly bitter even though glossed with rich broth. The dish felt like the first days of summer, in which shade competes with bright sunshine.
But best of all were the noodles. The kid at the register had warned the dish would be dry, but a rich red broth came on the side, and once it was poured over the mung-bean thread, crushed peanuts, pickled greens, and various meat and poultry scraps, the dish exploded with flavor. It could almost be described as a soup, but defied categorization.
We ate quickly to defeat the rain and were soon finished, with plenty of leftovers, which my friend took home to Brooklyn. It’s unfortunate that Happy Hot Hunan is so far from my apartment, because it will take me several more visits to try its many intriguing dishes. Order online. 969 Amsterdam Avenue, between 107th and 108th streets, Upper West Side