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[whitespace] Hunan Taste
Photograph by Erika Pino

Sweat Equity: The tasty peppers at Hunan Taste promote perspiration.

To the Sky

Hunan Taste rockets flavor to celestial heights

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WHEN HUNAN Taste opened 13 years ago, San Jose was on the hunt for diverse cuisine, and diners flocked to authentic places like this little dynamo on Fourth Street. Hunan Taste was the first in the South Bay to offer real Hunanese cooking. Joanne Song, the chef and niece of Henry Chung, who (in 1973) opened the ever-popular Hunan in San Francisco, has created a menu that hums with the spirit of her birthplace, the village of Lile in Hunan Province. Hunan is reputed to have the richest farmland in China; the cuisine is hearty and hot, and full of spices and peppers that make me sweat midway through every meal.

Through a window in the dining room, we like to watch Song work. Her fearless style generates a lot of heat, sometimes incorporating balls of fire that spit in the air like angry dragons.

Song's husband, Francis, takes care of the dining room. He is a friendly, humble man who greets all of his customers with an open heart and a warm hand. I often see him sitting at tables, sipping tea and talking with his patrons.

The last time I had dinner here, we discussed the blistering Hunan (purple-red) pepper that grows upward to the sky--hence the name "to-the-sky" (chu tin in Chinese). According to the people of this region, these peppers promote perspiration to cool the flesh during the hot humid months and to warm the body during the cold winters. They're hard to get, but once in a while they come to our shore and replace the other peppers used in the dishes here.

I visit Hunan Taste all the time, mostly for dinner--when it's quiet--and a lot of times for takeout. I love the food. I feel engaged and wide-awake when I eat it. As Pope Bob Russell said, "The flavors strike a wonderful balance." The food is spicy hot all right, but the peppers, instead of cauterizing the taste buds, invigorate the tongue and increase the appetite.

I like to start with the bean sprout salad ($5.75), made with handfuls of bean sprouts, shredded carrot and cucumber in a hot and sour dressing richened with chunky peanut butter, an important condiment in Hunan cooking. This salad goes well with a side of scallion-filled onion cakes ($2.10), always crispy and subtle in flavor. I use the slices to scoop the salad and soak up the pungent juices.

From the meat dishes, I switch from Harvest Pork ($7.50)--a twice-cooked specialty of sliced pork with cabbage, carrot, garlic and hot bean sauce (enjoyed at funeral feasts and banquets where families of the same last name celebrate their ancestors)--to the Hunan smoked ham ($8.25), consisting of thin slices of ham--smoked on the premises by Joanne--in a fiery gravy with cabbage, bamboo shoots and bell peppers.

On other occasions, I order the full-bodied garlic chicken ($7.75) or the chicken with string beans ($8.25), a signature toss-fry of cubed skinless bird in a mahogany-dark liquid with infusions of pepper that can startle the palate. The string beans can be ordered ($7.50) dry-sautéed in the same spicy sauce.

I also like the curry chicken ($7.95) made with Indian hot curry, or the hot and sour chicken ($7.95), intense and tangy and imbued with ginger. Sometimes, I'll have just hot and sour vegetables ($6.95) made with cabbage, carrot and bean sprouts.

Hunan Taste occupies a small corner slot next door to a Laundromat. From the outside, it has the look of a neighborhood restaurant in a big city. The windows are draped, and the sign with the smiling red pepper penetrates the dreariest weather. Coming here at night--especially when there's fog or rain--casts a mysterious effect.

I never feel cramped or uncomfortable at the Hunan Taste. The room is clean, warm and well spaced. I'm always fed well and entertained by all the activity in that kitchen. By the time food arrives, all senses have been called to duty, and the appetite is pumping.

Hunan Taste
Address: 998 N. Fourth St., San Jose
Phone: 408.295.1186
Hours: 11am-8:30pm Mon-Sat
Price Range: $5-$10

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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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