Over the last decade, New York City and its surrounding communities have become so rich in Chinese restaurants — and especially, ambitious and distinguished regional ones — that even food writers like myself can’t keep up. It used to be that one had to visit Flushing to find the latest in Hunan, Shanghai, Dongbei, Sichuan, Henan, Hong Kong, Qingdao, or Beijing menus.
So it was no surprise that I missed the opening of Chef Tan three years ago on the north end of the Jersey City’s unpromising Newport neighborhood, which is mostly high-rises with franchise restaurants. I was researching the area ahead of an update to the area’s best restaurants map when I came across this establishment. Located on the ground floor of an office building, Chef Tan is large and serpentine in layout, with an interior sumptuously clad in stained woods and burnished gold panels, slits along one wall through which flickering video flames can be seen, and, smack dab in the middle, a black grand piano. As I arrived, a high school student sat down and lit into Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata,” as an appreciative audience stood around her.
The menu mixes Hunan and Sichuan cooking, with a small section of Chinese American dishes the selection of which are a revelation, suggesting which dishes are considered of American origin, including chicken with broccoli and kung pao shrimp (the latter actually traces back to Sichuan). My friends and I went for the Hunan dishes, which tend to be hotter than Sichuan and filled with all sorts of incredible ingredients that are preserved by smoking, drying, salting, and pickling. Our impressive feast was preceded by a plate of lackluster pork dumplings that arrived dry, as if they’d been steamed hours before.
But the next dish really hit the spot. Selected from among the appetizers, century egg and cold eggplant ($15) came attractively deposited in a mortar and pestle, with a whole egg tinted translucent like obsidian, an effect achieved by soaking it in quicklime and ash for weeks. Each bite is creamy and fiery with very little egg flavor once all the ingredients are lightly macerated with the pestle. If an emerald had a flavor profile, this would be it.
This was followed by an equally stunning dish, and another Hunan classic: braised pork in Mao’s style ($20). Chairman Mao was born in the Shaoshan prefecture of Hunan, and this dish is often said to be a favorite of his. Big chunks of pork belly are braised in a wok with garlic, star anise, rice wine, and sugar that caramelizes to achieve the dish’s distinctive, dark-red color. The rubbery and fatty texture of the belly is a delight, too, though the dish lacks the chestnuts (or sometimes water chestnuts) that are used in some versions.
One virtue of the regional Chinese restaurants that have been appearing all over the place, at least partly catering to Chinese immigrants and students, is that they are unafraid to offer offal. Pig tripe and smoked bamboo is a typical Hunan use — slippery tendrils of small intestine and other internal parts interspersed with semi-fibrous swatches of barbecued bamboo, with substantial heat provided by tiny red bird’s eye chiles that dot the bowl.
In a subsequent visit, my companions and I also tried calves liver sauteed with cucumbers, producing a slightly sweet flavor; pigs feet loaded with collagen that had been shaved into thin slivers; and chicken gizzards diced into a sour soup with glassy mung-bean threads in its depths, which were nearly impossible to grasp with chopsticks.
But perhaps the most well-known dish in Hunan cuisine is fish head with diced red peppers ($33). An enormous noggin is split and splayed, paved with fiery chiles bathed in oil, with the opaque eyes staring imploringly from the fleshy mass. Every spicy bite is a delight, a showcase for the muddy freshwater-fish flavors the carp represents (although the fish served for this dish varies). The bones are big enough that the carcass can be scraped clean.
The menu is enormous, and we didn’t feel bad mainly sticking to the Hunan parts, which made the Sichuan selections appear rather bland as they passed by our table. A couple of other don’t miss dishes included one of Hunan cuisine’s standbys. “Sauteed pork in home style” ($19.95) features coarsely cut tidbits of meat with long green chiles, seeds removed for a softer flavor but still pungent with ginger and garlic.
Though white rice is provided in abundance with the main dishes, it’s worthwhile to pay extra for scallion fried rice ($12.95), which is intensely green and fresh with the taste of late spring — more perfect than even white rice for soaking up the heat.
As we cruised the internet after our meals at Chef Tan, we began finding other branches with the same name and strikingly similar menus — the predecessor of this one seems to be located near New Brunswick, but there’s also one in Newark, Delaware. But the biggest surprise of all was finding a newly opened branch right on St. Marks in the East Village. Maybe that one is closer to you, but I can guarantee the Jersey City branch is more dramatically decorated. And in case you wondered, there’s no one in the kitchen named Chef Tan.