The Dallas area’s Chinese food scene grows more diverse by the month. To the west, we have Fortune House and Wuxi House serving specialties from in and around Shanghai; in Plano, a constellation of Sichuan restaurants offers seafood, wontons and platters brimming with bold red peppers and chili oils. Only a few months ago, Little Kaiping gave Richardson a new specialist in Cantonese barbecue.
Hunan province, the mountainous southern Chinese birthplace of Mao Zedong, had been relatively ill-served by a small handful of kitchens and dishes in North Texas. That changed in January 2019 with the arrival of Hunan Bistro in Plano, occupying a stylishly redesigned dining room next to the DFW Reptarium. Hunan Bistro’s regional specialties are across-the-board excellent, giving the northern suburbs yet another excellent venue for Chinese food.
Hunan Bistro is, admittedly, intimidating for first-time visitors. It’s consistently busy, and the restaurant uses a tablet loaded with the Yelp app to manage the wait for a table. On one visit, the app deleted our party without actually assigning us to seats, so we had to register again.
When you manage to sit down, take a few moments to leaf through the menu, an enormous 42-page binder containing color photographs of every dish. The variety can be bewildering, and the short text introduction, apparently translated by a computer, is not much help: “Hunan cuisine, also called Hunan cuisine, is one of the eight famous Chinese cuisines.”
“Taste the attention to spicy, fresh, soft and tender,” the menu advises. “Make the law to simmer, stew, wax, steam. All kinds of things are said to be Fry.”
Never mind that. Hunan cuisine is famously one of the spiciest in China, but that reputation is a little misleading, because simple steamed dishes and stir fried vegetables are popular as well. Unlike in Sichuan, where the peppercorns are famously numbing and the heat is often ferocious, spicy foods from Hunan tend to be salty or sour — just enough to give your taste buds a jolt. Along with seafood, the main protein is pork; indeed, red-braised pork was Mao’s favorite meal.
One more trait of Hunanese food worth noting is that a lot of it, even at restaurants, revolves around home-style cooking. The word “rustic” is a compliment here. If garlic is added to a stir fry, the cloves may remain whole. Many of the dishes at Hunan Bistro are studded with nickel-sized chunks of ginger root. Flavors aren’t always woven seamlessly together; sometimes they jostle and spar like actors on a stage.
Other times, though, they are serene in their consistency. Take the pig ear appetizer: Flattened out pig’s ears, as smoothly cross-sectioned as a slice of terrine, are doused in a huge splash of spicy chili oil ($9). It’s a simple dish, and a perfect one.
Hunan, like Sichuan, is a landlocked province which nevertheless produces great seafood dishes. One of the specialties at Hunan Bistro is steamed fish heads buried in an avalanche of chile peppers. (If you don’t look Chinese, you may be asked if you’re sure you want to try them.)
Fried whole yellow croaker fish are a delight ($14). The croaker is not quite six inches long, and just over an inch tall; most of the bones in its body, after cooking, are perfectly, crunchily edible. Hunan Bistro fries the fish, without batter, and then buries them under a mountain of sauteed yellow onion, green onion and cut red chile peppers. Tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns are here in abundance, too.
A “dry pot” is a must. Served atop a small flame, the metal tin brims with meat and vegetables; paired with rice, it’s enough to share among a family. The “dry” name distinguishes this stewlike dish from the broth-heavy hot pots common at other restaurants.
Dry pot frog ($22) presents small morsels of light pink frog meat with the bones in, so chew carefully. The frog is mixed up with slivers of jalapeño and edamame — a delightful combination of mellow and hot. Large chunks of fresh ginger and whole sauteed garlic cloves add even more flavor to the mix. For those wary of frog, dry pots are available with other proteins, too; the chicken pot is much like the frog, but with slightly more meat on the shards of bone and without the edamame ($15).
Another huge, shareable skillet of stew presents steamed pork spare ribs that have been chopped into inch-thick pieces, tender meat hugging the bones, and covered in a gentle black bean sauce ($14). This is a reprieve from the spice of many of the other main courses. Indeed, with a handful of finely diced bell peppers in the mix, it’s even a little sweet.
The best-named of the non-spicy dishes at Hunan Bistro is clearly the “unforgettable combination of lamb and fish” ($17). The name is almost, but not quite, true. Yet another metal pot placed on your table above an open flame, the unforgettable combination is a soup with a rich, unskimmed broth, handfuls of mung bean sprouts, butter-soft slices of white fish and curly thin shavings of lamb. The meats go harmoniously, and the broth, which carries a tiny hint of numbing pepper, is a good way to cool your taste buds down after an assault of chili oil.
There are satisfying vegetable side dishes, like the “house special” cauliflower tossed in a wok with an abundance of long slices of green onion ($11). The stir fried eggplant in deeply savory brown sauce is another winner ($10); surprisingly, it’s the cauliflower, not the eggplant, that leaves a trail of oil on the plate, but that doesn’t make it less fun to eat.
The champion veggie, though, may be the quick-fried green beans, a dish that doesn’t get much better than the version served at Hunan Bistro ($10). They’re just crispy enough, just salty enough and generously sprinkled with chopped dried peppers.
Two words of caution are in order. First, service at Hunan Bistro can be slow, but only because the restaurant reshuffles its waitstaff to match English-speaking servers to English-speaking tables. Second, don’t get tempted by the fare you might order at a dozen other spots around town. This kitchen serves some of the very worst scallion pancakes in Texas ($7); after bathing until soft in a pool of oil, the pancakes arrive as shiny and limp as a pair of leather pants.
But why order scallion pancakes when there are spicy pig ears on offer? If you’re craving the spicy stir fries, rich soups and whole fried fish of Hunan, this newcomer is equal to any rival in town.
Hunan Bistro, 2220 Coit Road #420, Plano. 972-599-9996. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
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