Tucked between a pizza restaurant and a 7-Eleven, the outside of Hunan House gives no hint as to what awaits you inside. In Cherry Tree Center facing U.S. 29, the restaurant specializes in Chinese cuisine - Hunan and Szechuan - tastes familiar to many diners.
But there is something different about Hunan House, as indicated by the lunch and weekend crowds - something that has people lined up waiting for carryout.
The secret is in the sauce, according to owner-manager Alice Dan. "All sauces are made here ... fresh," she said.
Dan also stresses that the food is fresh. "It is important that the quality is good," she said.
Appetizers include steamed or fried dumplings with fresh sauce (vegetarian dumplings are available), Jumbo Shrimp Tempura and barbecued pork slices. If you can't decide on one appetizer, consider the Pu Pu Tray, which includes an egg roll, ribs, Shrimp Tempura, Fried Wonton, Cho-Cho Beef and chicken wings.
Favorite dishes include Hot Crispy Beef, General Tso's Chicken and Kung Po Chicken.
Another popular dish is honey sesame chicken. "We use the white meat for the sesame chicken," Dan said, explaining its popularity.
Hunan House offers a "Vegetarian Corner" of dishes such as bean curd (Hunan- or Szechuan-style), Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce and Yellow Bird - golden fried vegetables wrapped and sauteed in oyster sauce. More recently, Chef Yik Chi Li created a vegetarian menu using "meatless chicken" - vegetable protein. Vegetarian selections include sweet and sour "chicken," honey sesame "chicken" and tangerine "chicken."
The restaurant also has regular dinner specials, such as Lover's Shrimp for $11.95, that go beyond the price range of regular menu items.
Along with the traditional chow mein and fried rice dishes, the restaurant offers lunch specials - served with an egg roll and fried rice or soup for $5.50. They include Rainbow Chicken (chicken sauteed with snow peas, carrots, mushrooms and green peppers in a hot sauce) and Triple Delight (shrimp, chicken and beef with vegetables in a brown sauce).
"We get a lot of people [for lunch] from local businesses like APL [the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory]," Dan said.
Another reason for the restaurant's popularity might be its service. The food is served quickly by pleasant and attentive staff.
The restaurant, which seats 120, is decorated with paintings of Chinese scenery and flowers. A fountain greets customers as they enter the dining room. "Many people come in here for parties for lunch and dinnertime," Dan said.
In 1994, Dan, a Silver Spring resident, joined the restaurant as manger. Her brother Brian Dan is an adviser but has no active role in the day-to-day activities of the restaurant. He runs a carryout in Elkridge called Hunan Express.
Hunan House is west of U.S. 29 in North Laurel. "A lot of people from the D.C. and Baltimore areas are coming here," Dan said. Roadwork on a new interchange at U.S. 29 and Route 216 now takes customers back to one of Howard County's new roundabouts. Watch the signs carefully and turn into Cherry Tree Center.
The roadwork on U.S. 29 has created a hardship for customers, Dan said. "People come in here and complain it is hard to get back here, now," said Dan.
But she remains confident. "The food is always good because the owner is the cook," Dan said. "The person who comes in here for a meal is always happy ... because the food is guaranteed, the service is guaranteed and your satisfaction is 100 percent guaranteed."
Where: 11200 Scaggsville Road, Suite 106, North Laurel; 301-725-1226 or 301-725-1227; fax, 301-604-7565
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and noon to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Lunch, $4.95 to $5.50; dinner, entrees $7.25 to $10.95, Peking duck $17; and appetizers $1 to $7.95.
Credit cards: American Express, Discover, Visa, MasterCard.