At my job, we have a joke about conference presentation titles, saying that the best ones always include a colon and some sort of clever saying. Well, this post’s conference session title would be something like Han Dynasty Tasting: A Dynasty of a Meal. Or maybe Han Dynasty Tasting: The Meal That Made Me Eat Tripe…and like it. I know, I know, it could be cleverer but I have other skills in life.
A few weeks ago, my friend, Ryan, tweeted out that he had scored a reservation for Han Dynasty’s Monday night tasting menu. I quickly called my best friend, Farish, to ask if she wanted to go. She had been to the restaurant before, but just recently we had discussed our interest in checking out the tasting. My husband didn’t get a call–I knew he’d be down. I called the restaurant and was surprised to speak with the owner, Han Chiang, himself. Our conversation went as follow:
Me: I’d like to make a reservation for Monday, February 21st, please.
Han: For the tasting at 7pm?
Han: OK. (took my info) There are some rules you need to follow.
Me: I’m good at following rules.
Han: It starts at 7pm sharp. Don’t be late. You have to be willing to try everything and you have to be ok with spicy food.
Me: No problem!
I amusedly sent a quick confirmation email to Farish and my husband with an abbreviated version of our conversation. Farish has trouble getting places on time, my husband has trouble eating spicy food and I have trouble with offal. This should be interesting.
In the weeks leading up to the meal, we discussed who would be there and what drinks to take (it’s BYOB.) We learned that they suggest sweeter white wines, which makes sense because it counters the spice. Ryan set out on a mission to find some good beers and we certainly left that up to him. Farish ended up inviting our other friend, Suzanne, in lieu of her less adventurous (yet equally lovely) husband, Tre. Suzanne is always game for an adventurous meal and perhaps a snide comment about the, um, ample woman across the table…
On Monday evening, we left our house, eagerly anticipating the feast to come. Of course the forecast had to include snow. Why does it always snow when I have big and exciting meals? Luckily, the snow came much later and didn’t impede on our return trip, save for a few refreshing flurries.
My husband and I got to the restaurant around 6:40pm for our 7pm reservation (we didn’t want to be late!) and were told that Han would be right over to seat us. After a few minutes, Han himself led a small pack of us downstairs to a private room. When I pictured this dinner, I imagined a long communal table. In the basement, there were about four large round tables with lazy susans–the type you usually see in Chinese restaurants–on the right side and one looong communal table on the left. The table were separated by a half wall. Han asked each party how many they had and did quick calculations before directing us where to sit. We ended up at one of the round tables with two couples we didn’t know. This was going to be fun!!
The evening started off ominously when the woman across from me asked Han for sweetener for our tea. My friends and I looked at each other in alarm, after reading the expression on Han’s face. He brusquely told her to ask one of the waitstaff but a dish of sugar mysteriously appeared shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, my husband and I were sipping on our Yard’s Brawler and another one that I forgot(!!) When Ryan opened the growler of Prism Brewery’s Love is Evol strawberry-jalapeno brown ale, all eyes were on him. LeeAnne described it well, saying that you taste the flesh of the jalapeno without the spice of the seeds. Check it out.
Extra special points go to Prism for being from North Wales, my husband’s hometown.
The first dish, like many of the ones thereafter, came out quickly. Cold sesame noodles, although first, were one of the more memorable dish for all. The first few pictures aren’t such good quality (well, none of them are great) because I took the shots of the food on my plate rather than in the serving dish. My apologies.
The sesame noodles were a great introduction to the meal with a nice coolness and the sweet yet acidic tang of rice wine. Although I could have eaten a bowlful of these noodles, Han warned us to “pace yourselves.”
Next up was another favorite, spicy cucumber. I had read a lot about this dish and was pumped to try it. It certainly did not fail. The cool crunch of the cucumber played beautifully against the firey spice of the chili oil. I wish I had a picture of the serving bowl because these little guys were swimming in the red oil. As a matter of fact, my friend, google, helped me out. Check out the dish here.
The cucumbers began a series of dishes in chili oil that lit our taste buds on FIRE. It was around this time that they placed the rice on our table and many of us heaped it onto our plates in hopes of quelling the embers in our mouths.
Chicken in chili oil
Won ton in chili oil (yum)
Beef and tripe in chili oil. When he placed this dish on our table, I thought to myself–here it is. I knew I’d be eating organ meat at some point tonight. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a reformed vegetarian and I’m still a little weird about meat. However, I promised myself that I would at least try everything. By the time this dish got around to me, there was a mysteriously small amount of beef left, so I loaded up on the tripe.
It was actually really, really good, although at this point, my mouth was so deliriously on fire that I could potentially have eaten anything. The tripe was flavorful and not too chewy and, quite honestly, it was tough to identify a discernable difference between the beef and the tripe. So there you have it. I ate tripe.
Next up, dumplings in chili oil. I liked these even better than the won ton in chili oil. The sesame seeds certainly help, but the dish also had a slightly sweeter flavor to it.
The scallion pancakes were next, much to LeeAnne’s delight. I think we were all excited about this dish because we were hoping it might diminish some of the burn. Honestly, the pancakes were good but I preferred them when they were a little closer to room temperature–that did the trick. They came to the table steaming hot and that didn’t allay the sting on my tongue.
Everyone was excited when the Dan Dan noodles were served. Han later told us that Dan Dan noodles came from the old days when Chinese food vendors would carry street food around town. They carried the food on a stick slung over their shoulder, called a dandan. The food was often a simple noodle and sauce that the person would purchase and mix together himself.
The Dan Dan noodles were warm and peanuty with a sweet sesame flavor. Apparently they were spicy too, although I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell either way. These noodles also received high honors from myself and my tablemates.
Mung bean noodles in black bean sauce was a refreshing dish. The mung bean noodles were cold and glutinous and felt like heaven on my tongue, even though the little buggers were hard to get with my chopsticks.
It’s hard to explain this dish so I’ll just say that it didn’t have any overpowering flavors that wowed me but it was the perfect dish for that moment and filled a very deliberate niche in the meal.
Then came Ma Po Tofu. I’ve had a lot of Ma Po Tofu in my days as it is a dish that is easily made vegetarian, although the original recipe calls for ground pork in the tofu-heavy dish. Many iterations of this dish have been incredibly spicy. I’m not sure if this dish was less spicy or if my taste buds were a little worn in. Either way, it had a nice, rich flavor and texture. I enjoyed it so much that I was even able to ignore the weirdo across from me who hates tofu and was picking out only the tiny, tiny bits of ground pork for his plate. Of everything we ate that night, he couldn’t handle TOFU? Don’t even get me started.
Whoops, that is one big ball of blur. You get the idea though.
It was around this time that we were able to spend some time chatting with Han for the first time. Have I mentioned that he’s adorable? After hearing all the stories of this big and quirky personality, I expected an older gentleman. On the contrary, Han is in his early thirties with hip, black rimmed glasses and a cute style (and a potty mouth, to boot.) He is the cutest! We discussed various things including his favorite restaurant in the city (Ladder 15, he loves David Ansill’s cheeseburgers) and his favorite dish on his menu (“I don’t eat this fucking shit.”) He was very funny with a dry, dry humor. He also mentioned that he wants to create the perfect cheesesteak and put it on his menu. He would bake the bread himself and sell only 10 per day. If Han says it, I believe it.
The chicken with hot chili peppers was up next. Oh, by the way, the peppers are definitely hot. So if you’re thinking of popping one in your mouth, just to try….just a word of warning.
I liked this dish a lot, even though it came to me last so I got some of the smaller, less meaty pieces. We all picked around the chili peppers and heaped this popcorn-style chicken onto our plates. It was a nice, salty, chewy crunch. I could imagine that it would be a perfect street food–I might even bring it to the movies.
Han also mentioned how particular Sichuan cooking is and said that all of his chefs must be from the Sichuan provence because they grow up cooking and eating the food. Han Dynasty puts countless hours into the details of their food, from the way they cut their peppers to preparing their own soy sauce. Talking to Han gives you a quick glimpse into the love and affection he has for his food.
Ahh, then came the Three Cup Chicken, thus named because it’s braised in a cup of soy sauce, a cup of rice wine and a cup of sesame oil. I first heard of the dish here and have been meaning to make it. Unfortunately for me, Han Dynasty’s version was so freakin’ amazing that I may never be able to replicate the sweet chicken with hunks of garlic. Swoon. Everyone at our table was reaching for more of this dish. I think it was especially popular because it tasted so unlike any other dish we had that evening.
Just looking at that glazed deliciousness makes me want to run over to Han Dynasty for another serving.
Our lucky 13th course was twice cooked fish. This was a bit of a sleeper dish as it was really, really good–great balance of crispy crunch on the outside and tender fish on the inside–but, like some other dishes, didn’t carry a huge flavor pop so it was a little easier to forget. I’m always a fan of fried foods, though, so I crunched away happily and enjoyed the subtle non-fishiness that it carried.
It was about this point that I started getting full. Very full. And we were only on course #13!
Pork and garlic sauce was up next. Whoops, guess the spicy dishes weren’t done quite yet.
Then came long hot pepper pork. Surprisingly, this was much less spicy than the previous dish. The peppers tasted more like a typical green pepper and didn’t knock me out with the spice factor. In fact, looking at the picture reminds me that this dish was pretty yummy.
Chinese cabbage was delivered to the table next. It was a warm dish of cabbage with…you guessed it, chili peppers!
Oooh, the next dish was a surprising delight. Dry fried beef was chewy and almost reminiscent of beef jerky. Loved it.
As the green beans with minced pork were placed in front of us, Han told us that it was our last course. It was a nice to finish with a simple vegetable dish.
But wait, he dropped off one final dish with the simple explanation that “I was wrong.” Our 19th and absolutely final dish of the night was beef with scallions. Some members of the table looked at the dish with despair, thinking that they had already finished the feast. Others dug in with gusto. We WOULD master this feat.
Finally, we did it! Two hours, countless glasses of water (and beer) and 19 courses later, we completed the Han Dynasty tasting menu. I’m proud of my dining companions. None of us turned our nose up at anything and we tried each dish with enthusiasm. I can honestly say that I did not dislike any dish, although there were certainly ones that I preferred, including, both noodle dishes, the cucumbers, the 3 cup chicken and the dry fried beef. With 19 courses, you’re allowed to have a lot of favorites.
At the end of the night, we filed out of the basement room, handing Han $25 cash (not including gratuity) and a handshake on the way out the door. Simple ending to a phenomenal night.