To say that this restaurant’s name gave pause to the Taiwanese-American couple I took on one visit—she writes Chinese cookbooks for Americans—would be an understatement. But they were heartened when, below the English name, they read the sign in Mandarin that proclaims the restaurant’s true identity: Old Hunan.
Any remaining skepticism was erased once we looked over the sprawling menu that, with the exception of one page of American-style dishes, bears little resemblance to that of (fortune) cookie-cutter Chinese restaurants. Despite a name that panders to timid American palates, an exterior so inconspicuous you will likely drive right past the first time, and an interior to match, this modest, 60-seat restaurant serves seriously authentic, seriously delicious Hunan cuisine. Fortunately, there’s nary a fortune cookie in sight.
Owners Michelle and Anmin Shi hail from Hunan Province, says their son, Terry, who serves as general manager and spokesperson. The family formerly owned a restaurant in Queens while living in New Jersey.
The commute wore on them, so about 18 months ago they took over this spot. The dishes the Shis serve represent the best of Hunan cuisine, which (the menu explains) is known for its use of offal, dried and cured meats, garlic and chili peppers. These last make many of the dishes spicy but never fiery like Szechuan. Nonetheless, customers can specify mild, medium or hot. We requested medium and wound up with a pleasant tingle.
One of the region’s iconic dishes is braised pork Mao style. This is one thing the chairman got right. Cubes of silky pork belly melt deliciously on the tongue, their alternating layers of meat and fat resembling savory, salty petits fours, albeit ones flavored with garlic, ginger, chilies, star anise and wine.
Every dish is bathed in its own distinct sauce—no one-size-fits-all concoctions here. “You can taste each sauce’s unique flavor and how it contributes to the character of each dish,” is how one guest put it. Even a simple dish like cucumber in scallion sauce makes an impact.
Specials are listed in Chinese on brightly hued strips of paper taped to the walls. From the specials, we chose pocket tofu, which turned out to be tasty golf balls of minced shrimp and tofu. Like the best dumplings, they had a springy-spongy texture and, as with everything here, the portion was generous and the quality far outpaced the cost.
Adventurous eaters will relish the plethora of exotic choices featuring ingredients like frog, fish heads and innards such as gizzard, stomach, intestine, throat, ear and tongue. Our daring took us only as far as whole braised tilapia, which is as stunning to behold as it is delicious. The fish, covered in red peppers, with slabs of pure-white silken tofu underneath, is presented on a white platter with blue trim. Both rest in a bath of crimson chili-oil sauce, the whole strewn with shards of dark green scallion. The spicy sauce has surprising depth and complexity.
Like the whole fish, the duck braised with beer, Hunan-style, is worth a little work. The duck is hacked into bite-sized, bony, skin-on pieces from which you have to suck off the flesh. The effort affords juicy, tender and flavorful meat, enhanced by a tongue-tingling reddish-brown sauce with garlic slices, red and green bell pepper and pencil-points of dried red chili and scallions. Vegetable dishes number in the 20s here, and if the soft, slightly smoky, braised Chinese eggplant is any indication, they are worth investigating.
We ordered two dishes from the American-style page, and even these proved worthwhile. Both beef with snow peas and braised beef with chow fun noodles feature good quality meat, snappy vegetables and good sauces.
Servers here can be helpful in steering diners toward or away from dishes. We were grateful to forgo baby-corn soup—too sweet , we were told—in favor of the recommended mussel and winter melon soup. That evening it featured Manila clams rather than mussels but was probably the better for it. Servers can be less helpful when asked to describe dishes due to language limitations. But they are infallibly polite, your food will be brought promptly and you won’t be rushed out.
Food is clearly the focus here, and that seems just fine with Fortune Cookie’s overwhelmingly Asian clientele. I was so focused on the Hunan delights that I didn’t bother with desserts, throwaways tacked on strictly to placate Americans—kind of like fortune cookies.