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Restaurant Review: Hunan in Ardmore

Third generation Chef / Owner Chris Foo takes an inspired hands on interest in his customers and their experience.

Restaurant: Hunan
Address: 47 E. Lancaster Ave. Ardmore Pa 19003
Rating: ★★★★★ out of 5 stars
Style: Eat-In / Take-Out / Delivery
Food: Hunan Chinese
Atmosphere: Welcoming & "Newly" Renovated 
Service: Friendly
Price Range: Lunch, Under $10; Dinner, $3 - $30
Parking: Metered Lot Parking
Unique Feature: Third generation chef-owner Chris Foo takes an inspired, hands-on interest in his customers and their experience. Ask about off-menu items and his pickled hot peppers.

 

As I’ve come to find, lunch on the Main Line sometimes results in a quick change of plans. Searching out many a forgotten spot inevitably leads to locked doors, and even shuttered windows. But when one restaurant door is locked, there’s usually one right across the street that’s open.

This is how I found Hunan. I’d noticed it before while driving up Lancaster Avenue, but hadn’t gotten the chance to try for myself until this week. Not only did I find an unlocked door and lunch service, but a Main Line institution—the first Chinese restaurant in Ardmore and a third-generation chef and owner, with a namesake pedigree, serving up deliciously spicy Asian cuisine with a few twists.

The menu included many of the usual suspects, with a heavy selection of spicy dishes, indicative of the restaurant’s name, Hunan, and the province in China from which its owners originally emigrated.

I chose the Hunan chicken lunch plate, which came with soup and rice for $9.95. I went with the hot and sour soup (a signature dish at Hunan) as well as a side of Hunan stuffed hot peppers for $6.95. My friend chose the Orange beef with a ginger salad, also $9.95.

Our soup and salad arrived within minutes. This was my first attempt at hot and sour soup, my second with tofu. And after an ill-fated miso I’d had about a month back, I was nervous. But all of those feelings floated away with just one taste of Foo’s signature soup, made the same way today as it was thirty-five years ago.

The spicy and tart flavors piqued my taste buds in new combinations. Floating in the bowl of gelatinous broth were green onions, shreds of pork, tofu (that made me reconsider my negative opinion of the staple) and an odd little ingredient that was firm, but jelly-like, that I decided was seaweed (more to come on that).

Next out of the kitchen was our order of Hunan stuffed peppers, long hot chili peppers stuffed with an Asian-flavored pork, and a chef’s surprise. My friend had inquired about the NoLa-inspired po’boys and beniets on the menu. Chef Foo had explained his love of New Orleans and was now letting us try one of his creations—on him.

A tempura shrimp po’boy, served on a hot, fresh roll with lettuce, pickle slices and a creamy spicy mayo, accompanied by a pork and pepper-topped side of perfectly crispy waffle fries, was set down on the table.

One bite and I was sold. For the next, I added one of the Hunan stuffed peppers, and the flavor combination got even better. Creamy, spicy, crunchy and pickled, served on hot fresh bread. I could eat one every day.

But the chef explained they aren’t always on the menu. The prevalence of customers ordering Louisiana-style hoagies at a Chinese restaurant might seem obvious, but Foo’s excitement for his inspired creations win out every time. A little inquiry into what he has up his sleeve, and Chef Foo can turn a run-of-the-mill lunch into a spicefest of off-menu items.

Chef Foo also brought us a side of his house-pickled hot peppers. I was a wuss about it, but my friend dug in, tearing and sniffling in spicy delight from the heat of the tiny pepper rings.

Next out were our main courses; the Hunan Chicken and Orange Beef. Both dishes were prepared with care and in a manner unlike Americanized Chinese take-out. The meats were cut to look like meat, not like "pig ears," as my friend insightfully noted.

The chicken was cut into chunks, and tossed with charred, hot, red and green peppers, green onions, water chestnuts and an odd little something I’d actually encountered in my soup. What was it? Seaweed, right? "Sure," I told myself again.

But a little after-the-fact digging revealed that this ingredient was actually a wood ear mushroom; very different, and deliciously intriguing. 

My friend’s orange beef was also very nice, and again, much more true to the ingredients than other rendition I’d had elsewhere. The plate was decorated with freshly steamed broccoli. The beef was carved skillfully and coated with an orange glaze.

As we readied for our check, Chef Foo had one more surprise in store for us; dessert. Out of the kitchen came an unidentifiable creation. What was it?

Coated in crispy topping, and sitting atop a decorative squirt of purple, we dug in. It was cake-like, had a creamy filling and tasted like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“It’s a fried Twinkie,” said Foo.

The surprise was as astounding as the flavors we were thoroughly enjoying. Finally, our check arrived along with two chocolate-coated fortune cookies; the perfect end to an inspired lunch.

Thanks to Chef Foo, and his excitement for those who appreciate great food, I have a new favorite on the Main Line: Hunan.

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