Our Hungry Hound visits a pair of restaurants this weekend. One specializes in Hunan cuisine and the other focuses on Cantonese, where the names of the dishes often dictate their presence on the table.
Blazing woks have little to hide. Whether they're charring vegetables or searing meats. The cooks inside one Chinatown kitchen are focused on the cuisine from the Hunan Province.
"Hunan cuisine is one of the eight most famous Chinese cuisines," said Owner Tony Hu.
Hu has run several Chinatown restaurants over the years. His latest, Hunan Cuisine - which occupies the corner of the Richland Center Mall but requiring pickup from the back door during COVID - serves traditional dishes without compromise.
"Sliced pork marinated with soy sauce and oyster sauce. Stir-fried with Chinese-style jalapeño peppers," he said.
Ground pork is stuffed into puffy gua bao buns, and embedded with pickles and vegetables.
"They're made from ground pork and eight different preserved pickles," said Hu.
Slabs of tofu are mounded with fish and a topknot of chopped chilies.
"So they use diced chili peppers to steam with the fish fillet," he said.
After about 15 minutes, the steamed fish is finished with a bit of sizzling oil for extra flavor.
"Cantonese cuisine tends to be lighter than Szechuan or Hunan," said Carol Cheung.
Cheung is the Owner of Jade Court in Hyde Park. Her family ran Phoenix in Chinatown for many years. She hired her old chef, and they're sticking to tradition, which means fresh ingredients cooked over high heat.
"And we cook them very quickly on a very hot wok to maintain that freshness," she said.
Cheung said symbolism abounds during the New Year, for instance, serving a whole fish.
"The way that it sounds - like fish, 'yur' - it sounds like 'having.' The symbolism of the whole fish is to symbolize prosperity," she said. "The word for lettuce is 'san choy' which pretty much means 'growing fortune.' You have to have shrimp because the Chinese word for shrimp is 'ha,' which sounds like laughter. Noodles, longevity. The eggrolls look like bars of gold. The dumplings look like sacks of money."
Sweets play an important role as well. Cheung said even though they can't have a packed dining room, they can certainly prepare dishes to go.
As for planning a traditional feast, she and her staff have that covered after so many years working in Chinatown.
"So it's not so much what the actual dish is, as what the name sounds like," said Cheung.
Jade Court is going to have a special Chinese New Year's menu for the next week or so, but even after the New Year's, be sure to check out their regular Cantonese menu. It's definitely worth a little detour south of Chinatown.
Several restaurants in and around Chinatown are also offering New Year's menus this weekend.
2002 S. Wentworth Ave.
1516 E. Harper Ct.