Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guoyuan Hunanese Food

Guoyuan is a small Hunanese Restaurant, near the Hongkou football stadium. While in most regards it looks the part of a standard local restaurant, it stands out in one regard: there will almost always be a line out the front door, day or night.

It's actually a favorite restaurant of mine, and a restaurant that's very convenient for me. I don't go as often as I might like, and I'd like to take a moment to blame my friends – while it's near two subway stations, it's still not a very central location for most people. And the people I do know in the area, for the most part, can't take the spiciness. As opposed to the sweetness and even blandness of Shanghainese Foods, Hunan Food is spicy, and Guoyuan plays the part. As an extreme example, here's a plate of bamboo, covered in peppers, along with garlic, ginger, and other spices. Not to be macho, but most Shanghai residents, local or foreigners, just couldn't handle it!

The restaurant is entirely Chinese-language, and while the service is friendly, they're a bit rushed. A foreigner who doesn't speak the language and doesn't have a little familiarity with Hunan food might have a tough time. There is a list of the most popular dishes on the first page of the menu. One of the recommended dishes is found on almost everybody's table, and is really very attractive-looking, twin pepper fish head. I admit I'm not the #1 fan of fish head, so when I brought the camera I instead got fish soup. It's an interesting mélange of spices, including herbs that I usually see in a cup of tea!

How authentic is Guoyuan? There's obviously a few concessions to local tastes. For example, Shanghai people love cucumbers, and I'm guessing that spicy-oil cucumbers aren't a menu item at most restaurants in Hunan, although I quite enjoyed them:

But while I've never been to Hunan, or have any friends from Hunan, I assumed the restaurant was for the most part authentic, and I've also heard the chef is from Hunan. However when I went with a Sichuanese friend, she told me that while she enjoyed the restaurant very much, it wasn't at all what would be served in an authentic-style Hunanese restaurant in Sichuan, which borders Hunan. While obviously that could be a reflection on Sichuanese restaurants, she guessed that the restaurant adapted a lot of foods to local ingredients and tastes.

Anyway, the restaurant is on 520 Dongjiangwan Lu, a five or ten minute walk North of the Hongkou Football Stadium subway stations of both line #3 and line #8. Prices should amount to around 40-50 kuai per person, that's six or seven US dollars. The restaurant is open from 11-2 and then from 5-10, daily. There's no reservations taken, and there's usually a line, although the line isn't too bad except on weekend nights. While the restaurant is small, and patrons are often smoking, the décor inside is simple but classy.

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