Lao Hunan, 2230 S. Wentworth Ave.
Who eats: Mostly Chinese and Chinese-Americans, with a few business types mixed in.
Why eat: As part of the growing Lao empire headed by chef Tony Hu, Lao Hunan serves Chinese food that's based on Hunan-area cooking. It is one of four sister restaurants to Lao Sze Chuan, which was recently named a Bib Gourmand by Michelin Guide Chicago, meaning it was one of the inspectors' favorites for value.
Ambience: The Chinatown restaurant is small and by no means fancy, with basic wooden tables, simple padded chairs and a tiled floor. What it lacks in comfort, it more than makes up for in funkiness. One wall is covered in Chinese writing and head shots of famous people from Hunan. Servers wear what appear to be green Chinese military uniforms, complete with red stars on their caps, and have satchels slung across their chests. It's quite an effect.
Dress code: Casual, but you won't feel out of place in a business suit.
Noise factor: Conversation friendly, as there is no music and little ambient noise, other than the HVAC system and the sound of meat being hacked in the kitchen.
Overheard: "I think she needs to organize her ideas."
Service: The hostess was incredibly friendly and helpful. When told it was our first visit, she said we could send an order we didn't like back and substitute another entree for free. Several minutes later, she came to the table and told us our order would be ready "in six minutes." It arrived right on time. Complimentary tea was refilled repeatedly and was refreshingly hot. The server was honest about her favorites, steering us away from one lamb dish to another, which she said was "more interesting." She was right.
Cellphone reception/Wi-Fi: Cell reception was spotty. No Wi-Fi.
Reservations: Not necessary but can be made at 312-842-7888.
Menu: Chinese food from the Hunan region, including options for the adventurous (Spicy Crispy Pork Intestine, Stir Fried Pork Tongue with Wild Chili and Spicy Frog in Hot Wok) and more traditional offerings (Mongolian beef, Kung Pao chicken).
Reliable options: The Countryside Chicken ($5.95) is a cold appetizer, with pieces of pulled chicken covered in cilantro and a slightly sweet sauce. The $5.45 Tai Gan Hunan Style appetizer — green beans, green onions and a light sauce that gives it an earthy taste — is also served cold. The restaurant's most popular entree, Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly ($9.95), is a massive serving of thick, soft pork belly with onions and peppers. It's out of this world. The Diced Chicken Hunan Style ($10.95) is a bowl filled with cubes of boneless chicken and red chili peppers. The result is succulent but spicy. The Famous Stir Fried Lamb ($14.95) mixes a huge portion of tender lamb with red and green peppers, giving it the appearance of a Christmas dish — a tasty Christmas dish.
Expect to pay: $30-$40 for two.
Contacts: 312 842-7888 or tonygourmetgroup.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun